Superheroes, urban food systems, and sustainability


Fresh from the theater and I am obsessing about superheroes. Why can’t Thor show up and solve our problems? Why don’t Iron Man and Captain America and Black Widow show us how to end our wars on each other and restore Justice and Balance and Humanity? Where is Bruce Banner when we need a Doctor? The closer we get to self-destruction, the more I fantasize that a hero will appear and save us from ourselves.

Then I remember the heroes I met last week at the University of Minnesota.

Monday evening I joined other urban food advocates to hear from UM students about their experience in The Frogtown Experiment: Growing a Healthy Community Food System. The pilot class could become of one four core courses within a proposed new food systems major. CFANS (College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Sciences) Professor Nick Jordan and Senior Fellow (in Ag Systems, MISA) and community artist Seitu Jones led sixteen students in this course with an experiential-, service-, and community-based focus. Students collaborated with several different urban food programs run by local activists in the Frogtown (St. Paul) neighborhood.

The students come from a diverse population. Yet, whether from horticulture, urban planning, or food science, those I spoke with agreed that they thought the class would be an opportunity for them to “get their hands dirty” by planting community gardens or shade and fruit producing trees. Instead, they worked closely with community activists, teachers, and high school students on Frogtown programs already in place. They analyzed programs to understand what it takes to implement a successful urban food system project. In every case, the students understood that a community once provided the tools can and should take ownership of their resources.

Jordan told me that the proposed major would be the first of its kind in the nation. There is a similar food systems program at UC Davis, as well as in British Columbia. But this kind of holistic approach to urban food systems is especially important in a land grant community like the UM. Jordan hopes to demonstrate what a publicly-engaged department would look like. With public engagement community involvement follows.

Friday I shuttled across campus to attend the Sustainable Scandinavia: Thinking Green in the Nordic Country Conference where faculty from German, Scandinavian and Dutch Studies and leaders in Scandinavian sustainability gathered to discuss the best practices of individuals, communities, governments, and corporations. Department Head Rick McCormick began the program by reminding us that our American government doesn’t seem particularly interested in addressing global warming, much less moving toward solutions. He asked us, “What more important topic can there be? A sustainable future is the only possible future we would want to contemplate,” and when it comes to sustainable green living we have much to learn from Europe and Scandinavia.

Cultural values are embedded in the language, sagas, and histories of a culture. It is natural to study culture when learning a new language and sustainability is woven into everyday life across Europe and Scandinavia. In some cases, learning a new language might be the only route to read and understand emerging research and practices coming out of countries such as Finland or Iceland, where documentation may not be translated to English for years. Besides, meaningful context improves learning.

The Green German Project provides modules to teachers for integrating German language and sustainability curriculum, intended to be used either to supplement regular course materials or as an entire course in sustainability.Institute on the Environment instructor Beth Mercer-Taylor takes annual trips with students to Denmark to study how the country reacted to the 1970’s oil crisis, turning panic into successful energy policies.

Likely the most contentious portion of the conference was Carlson Global Institute Teaching Specialist and and Copenhagen Business School Ph. D. Fellow Robert Strand who urged engagement with corporations to establish sustainability practices. Competitive business versus cooperative sustainability practices make such engagement with most American businesses not quite probable, but Strand stressed a need to tackle problems from a hopeful and optimistic stance rather than admonishment. He described the Triple Bottom Line approach utilized by many Scandinavian countries whereas economic, social, and environmental issues are equally addressed by a company. While Nova Nordisk is a sustainability gold standard, Strand explained, other companies such as IKEA and H&M are while by no means perfect are at the very least involved in sustainability discussions and (some) practices (unlike their American equivalents such as Target).

In Minnesota where more than a century of Scandinavian influence flavors our politics and practices, we’ve earned an historical reputation for cooperation. The faculty, students, and engaged community at the University of Minnesota are earning a reputation for sustainable thought and practice. Although I wouldn’t mind an occasional appearance by Thor, I am grateful for my hometown heroes. They don’t wear capes (at least, not in public) but they are teaching us how to become our own superheroes. Make simple changes: plant a garden or participate in a community garden, compost, recycle, live simple but important lives, support businesses that prescribe to the Triple Bottom Line approach, and weave sustainability into every day. Need more ideas? Check out these personal strategy suggestions from UM Healthy Foods Summit 2011.