Written by Abigail Hudspeth
Picture an urban city. You might envision skyscrapers, traffic, noise, bustling people, the city is alive. Now picture a rural town. In your imaginary town you might have a single main road, a sleeping dog on the corner of a café, and an endless expanse of surrounding crop fields. These two pictures could not be more opposed. The growing distance between rural and urban areas extends beyond our imagination. In reality, this distance has major impacts on society, especially on the way consumers value food. With the growing divide between rural and urban areas, people are losing their connection to real food and the ancient tradition of farming, generating injustices in our food system.
Rural and urban areas are separated by more than mere geographic distance. A lack of public transportation between rural and urban for instance often discourages interdependence and travel. Moreover, the two worlds are separated in economic and political terms as well. The percentage of farmers in the United States has dropped from 30% in the 1920s to 2% in 1987 and has approximately flat-lined since. Today about 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. As people migrate to cities, the tax revenue in rural areas decreases and with it the quality of schools, housing, and infrastructure. This exacerbates a cycle incentivizing migration to the cities and compounding economic problems. These economic struggles have indirectly led to the rise of political divisions. Beginning in the 1980s, Republicans in the United States sought support from the white, rural, and poor voters who historically had supported the Democrats’ welfare acts. By exacerbating racial tensions, the Republican party converted many of those living in rural areas. These physical, economic, and political barriers drive a wedge between the metropolitan and the rural agrarian.
Even though the majority of the population who lives in urban areas finds it difficult to connect with people from rural areas, the rural agriculture provides everyone with a ubiquitous resource, food. Farming over the 20th century transformed from being many small farms to a few industrial “specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives”. Because of these changes, we are losing a vital connection to the value of real food. Can you picture a peanut plant? Did you know that cashews hang from the bottom of a large cashew fruit? Or that artichokes are actually the unbloomed flowers of thistles? Some of this unfamiliarity stems from never physically seeing the crops that produce the food. As we lose connection with agriculture, we also lose the knowledge and the respect that comes with it.
Our failure to appreciate nature’s gift has warped our perception of the value of food. We demand cheap food without taking into account the negative externalities of it. Government actions have only exacerbated consumer expectations for decades. The government shells out billions every year (16 billion to be exact) to farmers in the form of crop insurance. This helps minimize the risk of farming, but it also subsidizes certain crops making them cheap. Corn and soy are often recipients of huge subsidies, hence the reason soda, candy, frozen foods, and chicken nuggets (which are all derived from corn) are cheap as well. Not only do these affordable options drive the poor into obesity, but they also skew the value of food. Cheap food diminishes consumers’ appreciation of agricultural labor. Any visible reminder that could remediate society’s error, slips away as cities alienate from the countryside.
The price of food is never cheap enough for the ceaselessly demanding consumer. Even I constantly bemoan my grocery bill. When I see a dozen free range eggs for 6 dollars, I don’t think about the value of the farmer’s work that brought them to me. At least, I didn’t use to. After working on a rural, organic family farm in Costa Rica, I gained a fresh appreciation for the labor a dozen eggs requires. Rising before dawn every morning, I fed and watered the 400 chicken, collected dozens upon dozens of eggs, meticulously cleaned each egg of bird droppings, blood, and feathers, and cared for the baby chicks. Each carton was packed with care and filled with the product of my toils. Selling a dozen eggs for about 4 U.S. dollars suddenly didn’t seem enough. I had leapt over the divide between urban and rural, and I gained an appreciation for farmers’ hard work. On the other side of a price tag, there are rural farmers making ends meet for their families. As the distance between grocery shoppers and farmers grows, so does the inequity between them.
Creating inequality is not the only injustice caused by the rural-urban divide. While we lose sight of the value of real food, we create a culture of waste and animal cruelty. Throwing away a half-eaten plate of food is much easier without thinking of the glaring waste of water, soil, energy, and human resources necessary to bring you your dinner. As rural and urban populations separate, this glaring guilt fades into an abstract reality disconnected from the rest of society. In a similar fashion, meat CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) with their unventilated, tightly packed, squalid conditions, are purposefully placed out of sight of urban customers in the countryside. Maintaining distance is a purposeful decision by meat processing companies; a shopper’s conscience easily buys inhumanely produced meat, when they have never seen a CAFO with their own eyes.
Appreciating food for its labor costs begins with closing the social gap between rural and urban areas. As more people move to the suburbs and out of cities, this creates an opportunity for integration. Providing incentives for farmers to buy property near suburbs is a first step towards decreasing social barriers by decreasing physical distance. By blending the suburban with the rural, we can stimulate the rural economy and begin to reverse the process of urbanization. After knitting together a patchwork of farms and towns, we must sew together the divisions of community that come from political and economic differences. Community gardens have been used for decades to foster collaboration and a sense of unity. Community gardens also raise awareness about the value of food and provide healthy alternatives to the unhealthy cheap foods that flood the processed food aisle. Not only can community gardens be used to blend suburban and rural areas, but they can also be used in cities. Since farming in cities is impractical, community gardens compromise land scarcity with community awareness of agriculture. By increasing the proximity to agriculture we can reinstall appreciation for it. Community gardens are not the only way to increase agricultural awareness and practices in the city. Indoor farming is rapidly expanding in urban areas by refurbishing old warehouses. The most profitable type of indoor agriculture, aeroponics, grows high-value leafy greens and vegetables vertically in giant stacks of soilless plants under LED light. This precise technique cuts input costs by spraying plants with a nutrient mist and reducing transportation fuel because of its proximity to stores.
Knitting together our patchwork society sew together more than the physical divisions. We need government and business intervention to focus policy on bridging these divides. Reversing a process that took decades will take decades, but more is at stake than resewing the urban-rural quilt. By integrating rural and urban communities and fostering agrarian knowledge, we are protecting the integrity of the food and farmers we need every day.