The global food system has a lot of problems. Powerful companies dominate the market — from seeds to supermarkets — and dictate what farmers grow, how much they're paid, and what consumers eat.

In addition, in recent years, there has been a rise of ultra-processed foods in our diets, which has been linked to poor health outcomes including a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, cancer, frailty, depression, and death. According to a report by the Food System Economics Commission, the global food system is responsible for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, which when combined with other greenhouse gas emissions could lead to a 2.7 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century. To make matters worse, climate-related disasters such as droughts and flooding threaten up to one-third of the world's food production

Reading this list of the problems with the world’s current food industry may make you feel uneasy. However, there is hope. We still have time to transform our current global food system. A study by the Food System Economics Commission, "The Economics of the Food System Transformation," suggests that transitioning to a more sustainable food system could result in up to $10 trillion (£7.9 trillion) in benefits annually. This change could also promote better human health and contribute to mitigating the global climate emergency.

But what exactly does a sustainable food system entail? The report defines it as a system that involves making changes to different aspects of the current global food system from production to consumption that work together to achieve inclusive, health-enhancing, and environmentally sustainable outcomes.

As consumers, we can also play a role in transforming the global food system. One solution that puts us in control is growing our own food. This not only benefits the environment but also promotes healthier living. It's time to take action and make a difference. 

To achieve this goal, non-profit organization Big Green is on a mission to revolutionize North America’s food system by empowering everyone to grow food in their neighborhood. To date, they’ve helped over half a million people by providing garden beds to 775 schools and 1,660 families, and have given over $5.44 million in grants to grassroots nonprofits and schools

This year, Big Green is embarking on its next mission: the "Grow Together" Bus Tour. The tour will travel across several cities, including Texas, San Antonio, Memphis, Atlanta, Savannah, and Minneapolis, to unite communities through the transformative power of growing food over food and gardening events, by sharing gardening knowledge and giving away gardening kits. Big Green is partnering with over 10 organizations from across the US, and will also showcase the efforts of change-makers and communities who have used food to champion healthier and sustainable living within their cities.

Global Citizen spoke with Big Green's Vice President of Advancement, Madeleine Nelson, about the bus tour and the impact the organization has had over the last 12 years empowering communities, schools, and families to grow their own food as well as the physical, mental, social, and economic benefits of growing your own food, how the current food system in the US has disconnected people from their food and how Big Green is on a mission to combat this through the power of gardening. 

A wide shot of Big Green's tour bus. Featuring a mural designed by Ver Sands, an illustration, and design studio. April 2023.
Image: Courtesy of Big Green

What inspired Big Green to launch this bus tour and what outcome are you hoping for when the tour ends?

We really hope to inspire people to start growing food. So the bus is big and loud and colorful and really eye-catching. And we're really excited to pull up to community spaces and community events throughout this tour. We have about 1,000 gardens to give away over the course of the tour and then tons and tons of seeds and other gardening supplies. So we really want to provide people with the tools to start growing their own food so they can experience how easy and how satisfying and rewarding it is.

Can you tell us more about the core functions of the bus?

It has a podcast studio. We have been beginning to use podcasting as a way for the organizations that we work with to start telling their stories and start sharing the wealth of knowledge that they have about growing food, anything from land access to grant seeking and all the different ways that they are advancing their missions and using this as a tool to share their knowledge with rest of the community. The bus also has what I lovingly call an “ice cream truck window,” sort of like a food service window. So we'll be able to hand gardens off of the bus as though we were giving kids popsicles. We have these really cool five-gallon-sized cloth pots that are a really easy way to get started with growing food. And so we have in a little tote, everything a person needs for two seasons of growing. We'll have things like lettuces, I think we're giving away radishes and beans. So lots of interesting things, really kid-friendly things that they can pop off of a plant and enjoy, maybe for the first time.

An image of Big Green's DAO Community members participating on volunteer day at Firdous Gardens in Atlanta, GA. April 2023.
Image: Courtesy of Big Green

Can you tell us why Big Green is focusing on helping people reconnect with their food through gardening? 

I think fundamentally Big Green believes that people are disconnected from our food. So from you know, whether that is from where it comes from or the effects that it is having on our bodies or how it makes us feel. We believe that there's a rise in convenience, the rising cost of groceries and the distance our food is traveling to us. We're just increasingly disconnected from fundamentally where it comes from and what it does for us. So when we say we believe that growing food changes lives, we believe that it has the power to improve our nutrition security, so the consistent, predictable, and affordable access to healthy food. That has myriad mental health benefits getting us out into nature and the soothing effects of gardening and being connected with our food in that way. It is a connection to nature and a connection to the climate and nothing will remind you of our collective impact on the climate other than watching your garden shrivel up in July because it is 10 degrees hotter than you're expecting it to be and no rain is coming. And it also has the power to positively impact economic mobility for people, as the return on investment for gardening is massive. Not to mention the quality, variety and locality of food that people are able to access when they grow it themselves or when they source it locally.

What positive impact have Big Green’s programs had over the years? 

Madeleine Nelson from Big Green has witnessed first hand over the years the positive impact Big Green’s programmes have had on families and communities, including inspiring a young man in Indianapolis who was experiencing food insecurity to transform an empty lot into a community garden, to helping a young woman from Chicago manage her diabetes through growing her own food, to helping to foster intergenerational connections between grandparents and grandchildren in passing down food and gardening traditions.

Image of participants at a community garden in partnership with non-profit organisation Big Green.
Image: Courtesy of Big Green

What has been the response so far regarding the bus tour?

Rev. Dr. W. Raymond Bryant Sr., Presiding Elder of The San Antonio District of The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), partnered with Big Green for a recipe demo day during the bus tour. He shared his thoughts on the tour: “In our tradition, almost everything we do is centered around food, but not necessarily healthy food. Through our relationship with Big Green, we’ve learned to cook things differently, and prepare different healthy recipes. We do cooking demonstrations together and teach people to read nutrition labels. We know that food is medicine and that growing food changes lives, without a doubt.” 

Bobby and Derravia Rich, founders of Black Seeds Urban Farms, also shared their appreciation for Big Green's bus tour: “Communities need a central point that they can trust and go to, to learn about agriculture and their food. Traditional nonprofit and philanthropy don't get a chance to have the relationship that we have with Big Green. We can grow more food for more people. We wouldn’t be able to tap into this change without the love from Big Green.” 

How can people get involved with Big Green and support your mission?

We would love for people to follow along for the bus tour. There's also a feature for people to invite the bus to come to their city and to explore the food system and explore the changemakers who are local to their community. Then we think that gardening is as easy as planting a seed. So we would invite people to just try it. Just find an interesting seed packet. Find a container, you don't have to have land, you don't have to have a green thumb. You just have to have sun, water and soil. So we would invite people to just try it and see how easy it can be and how satisfying it can be to grow your own food.

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