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Crunching the Local Numbers

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posted by Susie Middleton

Lately, in my efforts to improve my sustainable IQ, I’ve been overwhelmed by statistics. Our food travels, on average, 1500 miles to get to our plates (how much fuel is that?) A Chicken McNugget has 38 ingredients in it, including a bit of butane (is that really possible?). Two in three Americans are overweight; one in three is obese. Numbers like this make me feel panicky—Titanic panicky—like, is there enough time to change course?

Maybe I should stop reading so many Michael Pollan books and articles, and unsubscribe to half of the sustainable e-letters I get. But then I wouldn’t get the good news, either. And there’s plenty of it: The number of farmers’ markets has tripled in the last ten years. There are now more than 1000 CSAs in the United States. Urban vegetable gardens are cropping up in low-income neighborhoods. Small farms, it turns out, are 2 to 10 times more productive per unit acre than larger ones.

Yet national statistics, even good ones, are only comforting to a point. I feel best when I look in my own backyard. This week, for example, I’m writing an article for Edible Cape Cod magazine on Island Grown Schools, our local response to the national Farm to School movement. I’ve been dashing from noisy kindergarten classrooms and school cafeterias to light-filled greenhouses and dark, dank barns, trying to catch up with busy teachers, parents, and farmers. I conducted one interview standing on a pile of prized pig manure.

But getting people to talk wasn’t hard. Everyone loves the new program, because it’s action-oriented.  You could prove that with numbers – the hundreds of kids who participated in outdoor classes like Math in the Garden and Read for Seeds this spring, or the hundreds of parent and teacher hours that fueled the speedy execution of the first in-school vegetable garden in West Tisbury. But numbers never tell the whole story.

What I really heard in my interviews was a resurgent pride in the Vineyard’s agricultural heritage. Islanders are proud of their home, they want to support each other, and they like knowing where their food comes from. They see Island Grown Schools as a great way to reconnect to each other and to the land. And that’s a good thing, since numbers aren’t going to save the planet; people are.

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