On Thursday, November 5th, Edward Mukiibi, Vice-President of Slow Food International, Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA, Hanna Allerton, a Slow Food USA intern, and I stood in the Aquaponics Lab in the Food and Finance High School, in New York City. Dozens of fans blew our hair every which way as we listened to Philson A.A. Warner, founding director of CUCE Aquaponics Learning Lab from Cornell University Extension, shout an explanation of how the several gigantic blue tanks of water surrounding us raise 20,000 live tilapia at a time.
To enter the room, we each had to disinfect our feet by stepping through four shallow trays of a strange orange solution. We were then handed clorox wipes for our hands by a lab assistant in a sterile white coat and were instructed not to touch anything. When Warner threw a small cup of food into one of the nearby tanks, the fish made huge splashes. Hanna and I jumped with surprise, while Edie and Richard thrusted their arms up to shield their faces from the water. We all laughed, and I pretended I wasn’t completely creeped out by being in the middle of a giant science experiment.
This was the very first stop of Edward Mukiibi’s five city “Good News From Africa” food sovereignty tour. It was interesting to see such a complex technological system and hear about it from the man who invented it all, but I found myself feeling a little sorry for all those fish crammed into the blue barrels, with nothing to do but swim in a circle all day, everyday. When Warner explained the genetic manipulation performed in this lab to produce a species of tilapia that could live in saltwater, competing questions swirled in my brain like, “what could happen to the ecosystem if these fish found their way to the oceans?” and “could innovations like this solve hunger and food access problems?” Our visit to the aquaponics lab helped me realize the complexity of the issues we’re facing in the food sector, the same issues that Edie came to America to engage with during his tour.
Edward Mukiibi grew up in central Uganda where his parents worked as small scale vegetable farmers. At a young age, he developed a passion for farming, but when he started attending primary school, he was surprised to find that farming was being used as a form of punishment. If you arrived late to school, misbehaved in class, or even spoke your local language instead of English, you would be sent out to dig in the field. The school gardens raised food for the teachers, meaning students never benefitted from the crops produced. Edie quickly realized this discouraged interest in farming among young people, and created, what he called, a “boiling in his heart” that fueled his desire to change attitudes about agriculture and traditional knowledge.
At the age of 19, Edie was given a scholarship from the Ugandan government to go to university to study agriculture. While studying, he began working with a maize hybrid that was high yielding if planted alone. Edie’s belief in traditional agricultural practices were reinforced when a drought in Uganda had a major destabilizing impact because of this widespread mono-crop planting of the maize hybrid.
After this, he began working with farmers to re-integrate biodiversity into their farming practices. During this process, he started looking for organizations that believed in biodiversity and community in the food system, and that’s how he learned about Slow Food. Soon after this, in 2008, Edie became a member of Slow Food International, a large community organization that recognized the importance of traditional farming practices like those used in Uganda. It was the community he had been looking for. Edie’s work with the 10,000 Gardens Project led to him being named the Vice-President of Slow Food International in 2014 at the age of 29.
While at the Food and Finance High School (New York’s only culinary high school) Edie talked to the students about his personal experiences and the Slow Food movement. Before Edie’s presentation began, about 45 students filed into the enormous auditorium. Many of the students were dressed in chef coats, while others simply wore different colored polos and khakis clearly regulated by a dress code. They were talkative and loud, and the teachers had to shout to organize them into the correct rows.
Edie didn’t stand on the stage, he instead stood on the floor in front of the section of seats the students occupied. As soon as Edie spoke, with his calm, steady voice, the auditorium quieted. His attitude was welcoming in a way that allowed the students to interact with the ideas he was presenting. He joked with them and was open to all sorts of questions, which in turn left the students open to really listening to the ideas he had to offer.
During his talk, Edie posed the question, “What is your role in the future?” A pause indicated that the students were a bit stumped by the question, and I was right there with them. The students’ responses were mostly specific to their own lives; many of them shouted out their personal career goals. Yet Edie pushed them to think about a much bigger picture. Finally, one young woman raised her hand and said, “Our role is to make a change.” Edie agreed and explained what his vision for this change looks like in relation to the food world. He encouraged the students to work hard to educate themselves about the food sector, understand that their activities in kitchen affect other parts of the food system, and raise awareness about food waste. He left them with the poignant point, “Food is not just what is on your plate. It’s a process.”
Upon leaving the auditorium, we all crammed into an elevator that took us up five stories. As we walked past classrooms toward the door to the rooftop, students stared curiously out at us. On the roof, we saw the framework for the greenhouse, still a work-in-progress and Warner’s self-proclaimed “pride and joy.” Warner animatedly explained the capabilities of the space once it was completed. He told us that they would have the ability to raise an infinite number of different species of plants. I found myself looking to Edie for a reaction. He asked how this would be possible, since different plants require such different environments and conditions to prosper. However, instead of answering Edie’s question, Warner just continued to list the different types of lettuce they expected to produce, and we continued our tour.
When we got back on the elevator to leave, I listened as Warner explained to Edie and the rest of us why Africa doesn’t have facilities like the ones we saw at the school. He insisted that people had offered to build these facilities in Africa, but the people there instead wanted the money to build their own agricultural infrastructures, which then apparently led it to become an “intellectual property issue.” I saw Edie and Richard exchange glances, and on our way out the door, we politely handed Warner brochures about Slow Food.
On our walk to the subway from the school, Richard turned back to Hanna and I and asked, “so did you notice some tension between our ideas?” We began a conversation about how many people around the world are ignoring traditional agricultural knowledge in favor of science and technology. I walked quickly to keep close behind Richard and Edie because I didn’t want to miss a word of what they had to say. The conversation took up the entire walk to the train and a large part of our 40 minute subway ride from Hell’s Kitchen to Bushwick, which again helped me see that the issues surrounding food are so deeply complicated.
Edie explained that when people become so preoccupied with technology they often overlook the importance of food as a way to build community, this point was so clearly illustrated to me by Warner’s comments about the absence of food technology in Africa. Edie said, “Food is not just a seed. Food is seed, environment, and community,” words that rang over and over in my mind as we got off the L Train and headed to Roberta’s Pizza for a pie and an interview on Heritage Radio Network (HRN).
Outside Roberta’s Pizza in Bushwick, we met up with Erin Fairbanks, Executive Director of Heritage Radio Network, and host of The Farm Report. The outside of the restaurant is lined with wine grape crates that had been turned into small gardens and held green herbs and flowers of all colors. Erin explained that all the plants in these makeshift planters were placed alongside other plants because they had a symbiotic relationship. Roberta’s uses many of the plants as ingredients in their food, and members of the community also occasionally help themselves to some as they pass by.
We then entered the studio space that HRN occupies at the back of Roberta’s, which is made from two giant green recycled shipping containers. It felt like stepping into a cozy cabin, with wood lining the walls, blankets covering comfy chairs, and a boar’s head mounted above us. Erin, Edie, Richard, and I circled around the table of mics, and The Farm Report interview began.
Erin asked Edie to explain the “good news” he was bringing to us from Africa. Edie alluded to the major misconceptions that so many in America hold about Africa, like that the entire continent is stricken by disease, hunger, and war. While Edie’s work has impacted many different parts of the vast continent of Africa, it’s important for us in the Western world to keep in mind that Africa is just that, a vast continent made up of 54 extremely diverse countries. Not only is each country different, but according to Edie, Central Uganda, where he grew up, has over 62 different tribes and 62 different languages alone. The issues faced and traditions held vary enormously all over the continent.
Edie was most excited to talk about was his 10,000 Gardens Project. The project aims to create food gardens in schools and villages all over Africa in order to produce a local supply of fresh healthy food, and train a network of leaders to value indigenous land and culture. Edie said the farms created as part of this project go way beyond a physical space to just grow food. These farms are places to share knowledge, ideas, and labor. They’re places where cross-generational relationships are formed, and where leaders are born. These small farms are also a form of resistance to food and land injustices that these communities face.
Erin and Edie went on to discuss that these same major food and land injustices are being faced by people in many parts of the United States as well. On his tour, Edie plans to visit Detroit, where land grabbing is happening on a large scale and rural Mississippi, where people are facing major issues of food access. While I listened to this conversation, I started to feel a little ashamed. I was not at all surprised to learn about the food system issues that people in Africa were facing, but I was actually a bit shocked by the fact that those same problems were happening here in America. This was personal evidence to me of the skewed view of Africa people in the western world hold.
Next stop: KelSo Brewery located in a warehouse on Waverly Avenue. Upon entering the warehouse, Hanna turned to me and commented on the smell. It was extremely strong, but not unpleasant, just pretty much exactly what you would expect: yeasty, almost sour. The cement floors of the warehouse were wet, and the men working were wearing large galoshes. Rap blasted from one end of the space and a competing rock tune came from the other. We sat to sample some beer in a bar that had been constructed completely from repurposed wood.
Following our sampling session, Brewmaster Kelly Taylor gave us a tour of the facilities. We were shown the grain after it had been processed, which looked like a huge vat of wet granola, and we squatted our way among the maze-like brewing barrels. I was impressed by the concentration of the men working, none of whom looked up once during the course of our tour. They focused on pouring hops and testing temperatures, and it was exciting to see them work. Edie and Kelly compared fermentation processes in America versus Africa, and talked about the different beers you can find in different parts of the world. Kelly told us the most important thing to do is to drink what you enjoy and always remember to pay very close attention to what’s going into that drink you’re enjoying.
So that’s what we did. Our final stop was Berg’n Beer Hall for a “tap-takeover”, where all the beer sales from the night went to Slow Food USA. All around me, Slow Food supporters buzzed about the problems facing the world of food, the changes we need to make, and the good news Edie is spreading. It struck me that Edie’s visit brought together all these different people and promoted a space for these complex conversations to be had. We were sharing knowledge and ideas. It proved, once again, Edie’s point that a vital part of food is community, and I was hungry for more.