Beware the brutality of the averted gaze

‘Grow’ takes an up close and personal look at Denver’s urban food revolution

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courtesy of SAME Café

For a successful investigative author, it’s tough to sell a book of stories about Denver’s urban food scene to a publisher.

“[Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement] certainly isn’t marketable in the traditional sense,” says Stephen Grace about his most recent book. “I was told that again and again by publishers, which is exactly why I wanted to do it. Grow is a reaction to the whole commercial paradigm, it’s my way of pushing pack and of being gently subversive.”

It is no easy feat to make a living as an urban farmer, or as a writer on the subject either. And while publishing Grow may not generate a high profit, it makes sense for Bangtail Press, a small publisher located in Bozeman, Montana.

“Some of the best and most important literary art in the world is happening regionally, but the larger publishers are driven more by sales potential than they are by the quality of the work itself,” says Allen Jones, publisher at Bangtail. “Each story [in Grow] tells the larger narrative of the subculture of urban food. By focusing on the stories of these folks, Steve is tapping into something much bigger — a universal impulse.”

The urgency of telling stories from the urban food movement sprouts from a deep-seated instability in the industrial agriculture system that is feeding the world. The United Nations predicts that, in order to feed an estimated global population of 9.1 billion people by 2050, food production will need to increase by 70 percent. And 90 percent of this will have to come from the intensification of agriculture, which will require increasing acreage by 5 percent and productivity beyond its 1.7 percent average annual gain. Shedding doubt on the prospect to achieve these gains is the decreasing supply of petroleum and the increasingly unpredictable climate.

There are also human and environmental issues with this moment in agricultural history that Grace eagerly examines. Social ills like poverty, malnutrition, obesity, nutrient deficiency in soil, scant natural resources, inefficient supply chains and a declining labor supply of farmers all serve as a call to action for agricultural reform.

But Denver’s urban food community is succeeding despite these obstacles. Communities are coming together to support urban agriculture by working for free, paying top dollar for local food, and paying the opportunity cost of laboring in backyard gardens rather than shopping at a grocery store.

“Food becomes a very interesting way to focus on something concrete and tangible while asking a lot of very provocative questions and provide intriguing answers about things that go beyond food,” Grace says. “Like how we treat each other, how we build our societies, how we communicate, what our values are. This is becoming more than a movement supported by the rich — this is a gentle revolution.”

Some of the stories in the book go beyond “gentle” subversion. Crop mobs seed bomb public spaces, others garden on private property, companies profit by converting other people’s trash into compost, and many escape consumerism altogether as they rummage for food in the cracks of city streets. These are overt challenges to traditional notions of private property, efficient markets and a frenzied culture of consumerism.

The question that Grace leaves lingering for his readers is “Why?” Why are we voluntarily participating in economies that account for externalities? Why are we willing to pay the costs of injustice and environmental degradation before our markets require?

Although only given a few pages in the book, the story of Denver’s SAME Café (So All May Eat) lies at the heart of questions fundamental to Grow. Denver’s first nonprofit restaurant, SAME Café lets its patrons set the price for its menu, which is sourced from local, organic farms. Patrons who can’t pay, may exchange one hour of work in the Café for their meal. There is great skepticism surrounding the sustainability of pay what you can models, but SAME Café thrives in defiance.

“I’ve always liked the saying, ‘Beware the brutality of the averted gaze,’” says founder of SAME Café Libby Birky in Grow. “Homeless people are too often invisible to us. We walk by and avert our eyes. What they need most is dignity. When we meet them face to face, see them eye to eye, really listen to them — that’s how you start to build community.”

The opposite of the averted gaze is the examined life, which is exactly what Grace sets forth to accomplish with Grow. It is no surprise when Grace says that SAME Café was the inspiration for his book.

“When Libby explains what she aims to achieve with the cafe, I’m reminded of other efforts to seed community life in a culture stricken with affluenza,” Grace writes in his book. “Libby seems to be pushing back against the kind of consumerism that allows us to purchase a signifier of compassion without engaging in the act itself.”

It may not yet make economic sense to take care of our neighbors and community, but efforts to push back against markets are growing. Grace recognizes that markets have their place, but also knows that they can’t be the beall-end-all. There is a part within us all that rebels against logic and reason and that is the human element that Grace sets out to capture. Grace doesn’t try to wrap up the stories, or lead the reader to a goal; he is happy enough to just let the stories speak for themselves. He does, however, harness hope that the book doesn’t end with the last page as he sees enormous potential for the impact of the local food revolution if it were more coordinated and focused.

“One of the motivating ideas for Grow was always to use the book as a tool to get everyone together in the same room,” Grace says. “These are people that I met separately, and I’ve always wondered what it would be like to get them together to see what would come from it.”

The collective effort of the urban food community is reimagining industrial agriculture as a part of the greater ecological system. The challenge of how to feed the world rests on collaboration and a good old dose of revolutionary spirit.

Grow is on sale now in major retails, but Stephen hopes you will buy it through Groundwork Denver, a local nonprofit profiled in his book, to support the organization. Stephen Grace is the author of eight books, two of which inspired movies including Dam Nation and The Great Divide, currently airing on NBC.