Community Gardens Don't Excuse What Kraft Did to American Food

Big Food won't be absolved by tossing a fraction of its fortunes toward urban plots.

A few weeks ago, a churchyard near my city apartment was converted into a garden. A group of local volunteers hammered together raised beds, trucked in new soil, and planted berries, tomatoes and greens with the hope of growing fresh food for a local soup kitchen.

It doesn't get much warmer and fuzzier than that, but I'm pretty repulsed by it.

As someone who advocates for a more localized food system where we can all have a stronger connection to what we're eating and to the backstory of how it was grown, you'd think I'd support this kind of project. And I would, were it not for the fact that it was built in partnership with Triscuit. Yes, the cracker company, which is owned by Kraft Foods, Inc., the world's second-largest food corporation.

This spring, to mark what is the start of the growing season for most of us, the marketing machine at Triscuit is breaking ground on more than 50 gardens like this in dozens of cities around the country. According to spokeswoman Allison Goldstein, that's because Triscuit believes in the simple joys of growing your own food in a local garden, "no matter where you live." Apparently, Triscuit also believes in emblazoning gardens with its logo and highlighting the joy it yields through organized press events.

It's hard to find something bad to say about any garden, and even harder to fault one that will feed hungry people. But it's just as difficult to reconcile what could and should be a genuine community initiative with sponsorship from a corporation with about $50 billion in annual sales.

For one thing, there's the irony. Food giants like Kraft are largely to blame for the woeful transformation of our food system over the last 50 years, and the lost connection my grandparents' generation had to what they ate and where it came from. By churning out Cheez Whiz, Cool Whip, Oreos and other highly processed foods, which require immense farms, Kraft and its ilk have allowed us to forget how to cook every day with fresh produce and bury the memory of what it means to grow our own food.

But now, through a confluence of contamination scares, Michael Pollan books, and the obesity crisis, thousands of Americans are questioning whether we should have forgotten how to cook just because we could heat up frozen dinners. We're taking our money out of the supermarket chains and back to local farmers and independent shops, like our grandparents used to do, and we're supporting a food system that's better for the planet, our economy and our health in the process. Clearly Kraft has taken note.

Perhaps Kraft officials think Big Food can be absolved by tossing a fraction of its fortunes towards urban plots that will, realistically, feed very few people. Maybe they hope that we'll forget the dozens of food recalls it's been subjected to over the last two years alone, and see this gesture as a step in the right direction--that Kraft is on our side.

I don't care how many seed packets Kraft stuffs into its Original and Reduced-Fat Triscuit boxes. I don't trust companies of this scale when they tell me they care about gardening or fresh food or my neighborhood, because everything that preserves their bottom line tells me the opposite.

But more importantly, I don't need the mammoth corporation that manufactures Velveeta to help me clear a bit of earth and prepare it for cultivation. None of us do. If we want to build community, change our food system or plant a garden, we don't have to look beyond our neighborhood and its collective resources to do that. And that's true, no matter where you live.

This column was distributed by OtherWords.