Human Nature: Collaborations VI

by Rachel Hewlett with Linda Walsh

Eighteen students from nine Houston area high schools with prominent photography programs participated in Collaborations VI, a unique Houston Center for Photography educational outreach program that brings students together to collectively plan and execute an exhibition at HCP. Participants met biweekly with Education Coordinator Rachel Hewlett and community collaborator/local photographer Linda Walsh (see spotlight) to discuss exhibition planning, critique photographic work, participate in field trips, and listen to lectures from different community organizations.

Collaborations VI
was tasked this year to create a theme that complements HCP's exhibition Human Nature: to tell a story about an important issue pertaining to today's environment. The subject of food quickly became a topic of interest. A seemingly easy topic, the particulars of our complex food chain are often overlooked. How much attention do you pay to the food in your life - what you eat, what you throw away, what is in it? Do you know where your food comes from? These were the questions the students were challenged to answer using photography.

We decided to deconstruct food and follow it from beginning to end. This involved farming, distribution, consumption, waste - from both business and cultural standpoints - and one's personal relationship with food. One topic discussed with David Crossley from Houston Tomorrow and Laurel Smith from Urban Harvest was the local versus organic debate. Which is better? How are they different? Both of these movements, which often overlap (eat local organic) fuel the ideas of sustainability and pose questions as we look at current situations.

In the interest of examining local sustainability practices, Collaborations VI explored farmers' markets featuring products from local farmers, growers, community gardens, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). Houston alone has over six farmers' markets and numerous CSAs for vegetables and meat. Both farms we visited, Home Sweet Farm and Blue Heron Farm, are active participants in these markets and programs. Chuck Wemple from Houston-Galveston Area Council spoke about expanding the farmers' markets and their accessibility through grant programs for start-up agriculture businesses and the creation of an infrastructure program for the markets.

Houstonians are lucky to live in a climate where we could survive without importing much food. The city and surrounds have a year-round growing season, balanced rainfall, and large amounts of fertile land. Galveston Bay has a highly productive ecosystem with bountiful fish, shrimp, and oysters.

But what do you do if you live in the desert or have a five-month-long winter? Today's world of instant gratification has spoiled us, making it possible to get any fruit or vegetable year round. In the past, food out of season was only available through chemically treated, frozen, canned, or salted methods of preservation. Many stores including Wal-Mart are increasing their local inventory (Wal-Mart states that 20% of its food is local). But in most cases, you are shopping for a strawberry or banana that has been harvested halfway across the globe.

This leads to a discussion about food miles. How far has that straw­berry gone to get to your hand? How much gas was spent transporting the strawberry from a farm in South America to the United States? The cost of oil impacts food prices, resulting in a smaller gap between the once
overpriced organic food and conventional food. How much time has gone by since the produce was picked until you are able to eat it? Many shipped foods are picked before they are ripe so they "travel well," are harder during shipping and are less likely to bruise.

Home Sweet Farm prides itself on picking the food no more than one day before market or distribution, providing the consumer with nutritious, tasty, fresh-picked, and in-season vegetables. During their goats' milking season, Blue Heron Farm sells fresh cheeses at the Bayou City Farmers Market.

As the program progressed, the students' work developed on a personal note through their examination of food's life cycle. Illustrating self-reflection, students came in with images taken from their own lives; food their parents cooked, places they had eaten and stores near their homes. Some have investigated the appearance and beauty of food through textures, shapes, and packaging while others explored sociological, political, and environmental aspects of farming and distribution.

Participating organizations

Houston Tomorrow
Houston Tomorrow, formerly the Gulf Coast Institute, is a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 to explore urban issues and to participate in the discussion of growth in the Houston Gulf Coast Region. Its mission is to improve the quality of life in the Houston region.
The Houston-Galveston Area Council is the region-wide voluntary association of local governments in the 13-county Gulf Coast Planning region of Texas. Its service area is 12,500 square miles and contains more than 5.7 million people. H-GAC's mission is to serve as the instrument of local government cooperation, promoting the region's orderly development and the safety and welfare of its citizens. Key H-GAC governmental services include transportation planning, cooperative purchasing, homeland security, air and water quality planning, forecasting, and mapping. H-GAC also serves the region through workforce development, criminal justice, 9-1-1, trauma care planning, small business finance, and other programs contributing to the region's quality of life and economic competitiveness.

Blue Heron Farm

Blue Heron Farm is a small, family-owned goat dairy dedicated to producing high quality, healthful foods in a sustainable manner. Located on 10.5 acres in Field Store Community, Texas, BHF specializes in fresh goat cheeses that are available at Houston area farmer's markets and occasionally at select Houston area restaurants.

Home Sweet Farm

Home Sweet Farm (HSF) is a small family farm located off the Bluebonnet Trail in Washington County "the birth place of Texas." The Stufflebeams work full-time as a family on a 22 acre farm with a 110 acre lease. HSF is Certified Naturally Grown, and uses only natural techniques (no synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides) in growing over 100 varieties of vegetable and herbs. In addition to a monthly market at the farm on the third Saturday of the month, HSF supports itself through providing weekly supplies of produce to members of their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)

Urban Harvest

Urban Harvest is a nonprofit organization that uses fruit, vegetable, and habitat gardens to improve the quality of life in the greater Houston area. These gardens serve to educate, strengthen community spirit, create therapeutic environments, and provide food and income. "We teach organic gardening techniques, help neighborhoods build successful community gardens, create outdoor classrooms at schools that teach core curricula, nutrition, and respect for the environment, provide fresh, locally grown food, and encourage responsible land use. Qur work benefits all of us by improving food, diet, and health. It also builds engaging schools, neighborly communities, and valuable local businesses that together sustain and improve our environment."