Cassava is a rough, unimaginative, tuberous plant cultivated and processed worldwide as a caloric staple food.1 My first interaction with this comprehensive staple came in the company of a gracious family of farmers and a group of fellow students. We were looking to the indigenous Makushi people and others in their community to teach us more about their lives, their ecological knowledge, and conservation of their land in the Guyana Shield. I dug my fingers below the cassava’s irregular body nestled in soft, loose earth, and a chorus of giggles began as its brown skin snapped to reveal its fleshy white inside while I fell backward, straight onto my bum. Fortunately for my ego, this would be an all–too–common experience for my cohort. With aching arms full, we sauntered, single file, to the family’s homestead. It was here that a true test of our work ethic began. Cassava contains cyanide and only becomes edible after a days–long process of grating, straining, drying, and cooking; it is a food that requires laborious effort. This effort was shortened by the family for our learning pleasure and, undoubtedly, because we would slow them down.
I don’t eat this tuber now. Unless I was lucky, it would be a feat for me to track it down in its natural form. This food stuck with me, however. How curious a thing to have something toxic and laborious be crucial to people’s diets. How interesting to think of its role in small–scale farming across the globe. How compelling to have so little contact with something that became the root of contemplation for my own community’s actions toward food initiatives.
In the desert of Phoenix, Arizona—my home—there are a striking number of people suffering from food insecurity: over 14 percent.2 A large contributing factor to this is Arizona’s urban sprawl. The city of Phoenix boasts a population of over 1.5 million and has several surrounding cities with populations over 100,000. Additionally, more than ten smaller cities complete the entire metropolitan area.3 This vast space, infrastructure development, and economic factors allow for numerous food deserts—areas without ready access to fresh foods within one mile in urban spaces or ten miles in rural areas.4 As the larger community tackles these issues, I reflected on the experience I had in Guyana. What exists there that could be adapted to my home? Where do other communities like this exist? What are they doing? What do we have to learn or share? Spurred by this, I began my research.
I am not alone in this search. A surge of concern over food—its sources, its quality, and its impact—have created investment in sustainable food systems. Defining these food systems more simplistically as those that intentionally act to cut their environmental carbon output, they can additionally be a driver for positive community development and human well-being.5 This movement is not unique to Phoenix. In fact, many cities are creating viable sustainable food initiatives.
Details of some of these sustainable food projects can be seen around Phoenix. Less rigid zoning restrictions and increased government support have combined to allow development in new areas throughout the city.6 Community stakeholders have invested to grow gardens in vacant areas. Community and city government initiatives have led to community–supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers markets all over the metropolitan area.7 Still, our food access remains fractured, relying on mass production, unsustainable systems, and unnavigable information. Pondering cassava, my research took me places that we can all hope to learn from.
Across the world, an unlikely place offers a glimpse at a community that has seen the benefits of change in smaller sustainable food systems. Kyangwali, a refugee camp in the west of Uganda, offers a look at ecological planning in an area of longstanding conflict.8 Programs at the camp offer training in conservation, environmental practices, and agriculture; provide opportunities to form committees for environmental protection; and promote environmentally friendly land management, planting, and cooking as avenues for those unable to complete school or in need of work. Agricultural training programs mirror local practices and incorporate local groups to limit stress between communities and to develop positive working relationships.9 These initiatives have created successful economies and good working relationships with local host communities, as well as establishing food self-sufficiency and eliminating much of the carbon footprint of food aid. The noted health of these efforts has even been studied by researchers as an economic model for other camps.10
Additionally, and closer to home, the population of eighty thousand in Bryan, Texas, tackles the dynamic of neighborhood food issues through organizations like Distributed Urban Farming Initiative (DUFI).11 DUFI’s philosophy acknowledges the difficulties that hinder success of these projects in smaller or more rural communities. Their limited financial resources are met with the embrace of community business owners, and the lack of participants is alleviated through DUFI’s efforts to sell its produce at local restaurants and to bring in tourism, raising awareness of its efforts. With the support of the city council, DUFI has found inventive digital means to fund their efforts, has created educational venues for interested school groups, and has reached out to additional communities to share ideas.12
So what do these communities have for urban centers to learn? How can we adapt a space of millions, with both urban and rural areas, with such sprawl? Both examples emphasize vocational study and an allowance for economic opportunity for those leading a life in conservation. Opening citizen science efforts, creating internships and jobs, and empowering people to act upon these efforts is a way to gain traction and take advantage of human capital. This aspect can be difficult to realize in the Phoenix metropolitan area, and surely an emphasis on careers would expand viability of sustainable action across the cities. The sites also have an emphasis on education, something that could be supported more fully in formal, non-formal, and vocational school systems by featuring career options or at–home efforts that can be done by students.
Additionally, both offer lessons beyond this surface–level reflection. Boasting a contrast to these communities, Phoenix has two valuable resources that they don’t have: mass human capital and large–scale funding opportunities from both government backing and non-profit communities. Phoenix has an opportunity to create small–scale initiatives across neighborhoods. Breaking down the vast cities into smaller working groups could allow for the inclusion of another key lesson learned: community investment. Perhaps because of their size, smaller groups allow communities to drive change in their own neighborhoods. Using this as a model, Phoenix can create united neighborhoods that develop their own resources and initiatives, backed by larger government and citywide initiatives. Coupled with allocated funding from citywide or statewide sources, small geographic areas can assess needs, develop and maintain strategies, and share successes and challenges. In turn, this will alleviate food insecurity and enhance local, sustainable initiatives such as community gardens or co-operatives.
Small–scale food communities are not a panacea for food development. Significant barriers may not be alleviated by these efforts alone. Demands for higher quantities of longer–lasting, more durable, or health-enhanced foods led to the mass–production–oriented agriculture systems that we see today. Ingenuity and creativity is needed for smaller–scale, sustainable development to combat these needs. A dedication of time, economic adjustment, education, and community participation is necessary for the survival of these scaled systems. The noted benefits to supporting and developing sustainable food cultures are undeniable, however. Seeking lessons learned from the roots of cassava and the communities where it’s grown offer opportunities of new perspectives, new actions, and perhaps, unlocking the key to an effective sustainable meal.
I would like to thank the people of Surama for allowing me to learn so much from a cultural exchange, the individuals working in the Dragonfly community for helping to build educational experiences and opportunities around the world, my academic advisor for providing guidance, and my support system at home. This work was conducted as a part of graduate work through Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.