I live in the small upstate community of Greenfield Center, New York; which is just a few miles outside of the city of Saratoga Springs. Greenfield is a small rural town of 8,000 residents with a small infrastructure of a town hall, post office, and a strip of shops that includes a pizza parlor, wine and liquor store, and a Stewart’s convenient store. Residents of the town tend to form community bonds based largely on their participation at church, interaction at the local primary school, and in some cases in development style neighborhoods. Because of the rural nature of our town there is no real hub of community activity. After the children have finished grade school they move onto middle and high schools which are located in Saratoga Springs and so it is common for neighborhood connections to dwindle and many families move on as the children leave home. For this reason I have extended the scope of my neighborhood to include Saratoga Springs which has a population of 29,126, according to www.city-data.com. The population density listed for Saratoga on this site is 948 people per square mile or low density. The population density for Greenfield is listed at very low density, which reflects the rural characteristic that I have described.
Environmentally, Saratoga Springs is considered to be sound. The air quality index provided on city-data.com is listed as significantly better than the national average, with the ozone quality listed as better than average. While residents of Saratoga receive their drinking water from a municipal water filtration system, the residents of Greenfield have private wells. Also in contrast is the manner in which homeowners heat their homes. 73% of the residents of Saratoga use a natural gas utility, with another 19% using electric heat, and finally 5% burn fuel oil in their furnaces. Conversely, 57% of the folks in Greenfield purchase fuel oil while another 22% use natural gas which must be delivered by truck since there is no utility infrastructure available to them. Another 11% of Greenfield’s residents burn wood and 8% have electric furnaces. If we do the math we realize that only 3% of Saratoga residents and 1% of Greenfield residents use some form of alternative, non-carbon based heat sources.
Looking to gain a deeper perspective on how residents of the area think about sustainability I selected four individuals to interview. I asked each person to define sustainability, describe what types of changes have they witnessed in our community, what issues do they consider to problematic in the community, and what their thoughts were on food security. Of this group, all four have resided here for over twenty years. Two of them were in their late twenties, while the other two were in their fifties. All four are educated, well informed individuals who have some interest in sustainability issues. Surprisingly, articulating a definition of sustainability was somewhat of a challenge for each of them.
John, a middle aged man who has worked in the restaurant industry his entire life felt that sustainability involves “using natural resources so that they don’t run out, using them efficiently”. While he feels strongly about the importance of embracing sustainability as a life style, he doesn’t feel that most people take it as seriously as they could. Within the community he has seen a greater level of participation in recycling initiatives, but mostly because of mandatory ordinances. Within the business community he is aware of a trend which embraces energy conservation when possible. He says that tax incentives for energy audits and the assistance of utility providers who offer savings programs for customers who switch to low energy lighting systems are big factors.
Peg, a middle aged woman who has lived in Greenfield for 28 years feels a strong connection to the social components of sustainability. She is more focused on social programs such as second hand clothing drives in Saratoga and a newly created Code Blue program which offers beds to homeless people when the temperatures outside dip below 10 degrees. She sees the “dichotomy of rich and poor” as a serious problem in Saratoga. After witnessing a group of homeless people sitting on a brick ledge behind a downtown store Peg composed a moving poem about the plight of the less fortunate in Saratoga Springs. She recently told me that she noticed a segment of wrought iron fencing had been installed on the same brick wall, obviously so people could no longer sit there. The presence of homeless citizens in Saratoga Springs is not included in the vision of abundance and wealth embraced by the downtown community.
Interviewee Michael, a 28 year old lifelong resident, enthusiastically admitted that he doesn’t quite comprehend the true meaning of sustainability. He understands the environmental component, but instinctively questions how sustainability might include financial and other components. He is bothered by what he senses to be a lack of preservation in the historical nature of Saratoga. Several outdated commercial sites in the downtown area have been replaced with large, lavish new condominium and apartment complexes. Complete with boutique like businesses, this trend of development has changed the historically Victorian nature of the city. Michael is concerned about what the long term impact of this type of development will be.
My last interview was with Sarah, also 28 years old and a lifelong resident. She views sustainability as a “lifestyle”. She admits that making sustainability a priority can be a challenge. It is easy to become overwhelmed, but awareness of the benefits of choosing sustainable practices is the key. In her opinion, consumption is an issue in the community. Because of the emphasis on wealth and growth in Saratoga, Sarah says she witnesses a “duality value of new expensive versus new cheap”. Ironically, neither supports a sustainable lifestyle. New expensive involves consumption for the sake of consumption as a method of displaying wealth. New cheap involves consumption based on cost value with the focus on quickly throwing an item away.
With regard to food security, all four of my interview subjects felt that we live in a region with an abundance of healthy food alternatives. There are several health food stores in which one can purchase healthy, vegetarian items and a large organic supermarket opened a year ago with another currently under construction. Farmer’s markets offer fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products year round. Peg shops with the local famers, taking advantage of the indoor winter market. Michael feels that eating healthy foods is a good way of focusing on the quality of food instead of quantity. Sarah notices an increase in farm to table themed menus in local restaurants, but worries that this could be just fad. All three subjects agree that access to these food sources because of higher costs is an issue for many people.
But John went as far to say that despite the appearance of abundance in the city, he is aware of a school district just miles down the road that has begun a weekend back pack program to put food in the homes of struggling families. There are three food pantries in Saratoga Springs, as well as one in Greenfield Center. A soup kitchen, located in the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga, serves a hot meal to an average of 95 people daily. A delivery service exists to distribute a three day supply of food for elderly or disabled shut-ins who have no other way of receiving food. This service addresses the needs of those living in rural communities such as Greenfield Center.
My own observations support both the statistical assessment of our local environmental quality and the insidious disparity in accessibility to the community’s abundant food resources. In sharp contrast to the urban landscape of Manhattan, which I recently visited, the terrain here is green –although currently covered in a blanket of ice and snow. The neighboring lakes and forested areas at the foothills of the Adirondacks support robust, regional ecosystems of flora and fauna. The city of Saratoga Springs is lush with a beautiful downtown park. Just minutes away is the State Park which includes mineral springs, walking trails, a winter ice rink, and a golf course.
With regard to sustainability, the debate surrounding the placement of a Las Vegas style casino in Saratoga has brought to light an example of how the priority of prosperity might trump the priority of environmental sustainability. The residents of Saratoga Springs mostly object to the development of an additional gambling facility in their community. Despite the potential economic growth that could result from an additional gaming site, quality of life issues seem to be a priority. Many of the opponents of this project are anxious to voice their opposition and I think largely so because they haven’t had a voice in the development of private high end properties that have already taken place.
Because the casino project will be decided at a state level, alternative sites are being suggested. I saw a letter yesterday that proposed placement of this gaming facility in the town of Corinth, NY. Corinth is the next town north of Greenfield Center and is located just past the boundary of the Adirondack Park. The logic of this proposal is that the economy of the area would benefit from jobs and placement within the park would be a draw because people coming to stay at the casino will be attracted by outdoor sports and activities available to them. I strongly oppose this proposal based on the environmental impact alone. I also think the assertion that gamblers will come to the resort so they can hike, ski, swim, etc. is based on faulty logic and casinos don’t want visitors leaving the facility to participate in other activities, they want them on the gaming floors spending money.
I think that the perspectives of the people I have interviewed coupled with the efforts of people at food pantries and other social institutions working to address the inequitable access to the bounties available in our community provides insight into how we address environmental components of sustainability but fail to fully understand economic and social components. My personal goal this summer is to participate in our local food community and work as someone who advocates for those who struggle to afford healthy food and/or educate households who don’t fully understand the benefits of eating healthy and creating solutions that address the obstacles that prevent them from doing so. I have currently identified three possible summer employment possibilities. I am applying to work at a local nursery, helping them to start seedlings in the hot houses now and then working with the public during the selling season. I have found a farm that supplies food at two local farmers markets and needs someone to organize staffers and set up at these markets. This farm is part of the local community supported agriculture (csa) initiative. Finally, the recently opened Healthy Living grocery store is looking for staff in their Saratoga Springs shop. I love the idea of working in the retail setting of a store that offers so many healthy, organic food products; has a sit down café; and holds cooking and educational seminars on a regular basis.
I look forward to spring. The prospect of just one of these projects motivates me to feel positive about moving forward in my plan to give more power and voice to those who want to eat healthy but aren’t sure how to go about doing so, including myself. Now … if I could just be cloned … I could hold all three jobs and really make a difference!