The urban explosion is certainly part of the problem. The concentration of so many people within (often poorly) built environments has placed enormous pressures on Earth's life support systems.
But cities can and must be part of the solution as well. As Phoebe Connelly and Chelsea Rose point out, city farming is already playing a pivotal role in changing the way food is produced and distributed in this country. (GW)
Farming the Concrete Jungle
By Phoebe Connelly and Chelsea Ross
In These Times
August 24, 2007
At 9 a.m. on a cool, bright Saturday in mid-June, Robert Burns and Diana Baldelomar set up a farm stand outside the YMCA in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. The stand is simple: a tent to keep out the sun, two folding tables set in an L-shape and a handful of zinc washtubs filled with two inches of water. In the tubs stand heads of green and red lettuce, greens, broccoli, and bunches of mint and basil.
When two women approach and ask the price of the greens, Baldelomar tells them that the turnip, mustard and collard greens are a dollar a bunch. "Honey," the woman says, "in this neighborhood, if someone asks you for greens, they are only talking about the collards." Her companion asks, "Did you ship it in from the country?"
"No ma'am. These are from right around the corner, West Cottage and Brook. We went out and harvested them this morning. You should stop by sometime."
Burns and Baldelomar work with the Food Project, a community-based urban agriculture program founded in 1991 to get Boston's youth involved in food production. Their West Cottage plot is one of four farms on vacant lots in the Dorchester neighborhood.
The Food Project is part of a growing urban agriculture movement to improve access to quality food in cities by creating local sources of fresh produce. The movement is showing that sustainable, local food systems are not only a way to ensure food security but also a means of addressing social justice issues.
And the movement is getting stronger. Community urban agriculture programs are gaining support from city governments desperate to increase green space and capitalize on public interest in environmental responsibility. As In These Times went to press, the 2007 farm bill had passed in the House of Representatives with a $30 million appropriation for community food projects.
"The biggest crisis in our food system is the lack of access to good, healthy, fresh food, for people living in cities, particularly in low-income communities," says Anna Lappé, co-founder with her mother Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute. "Urban agriculture work is one of the most powerful solutions, because it brings food directly into the communities."
Not just another garden
In her book, City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening In America, Laura Lawson charts a movement that stretches back to the 1880s. Lawson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says that urban gardening programs have had three missions: bringing nature to the city, offering educational opportunities to low-income and immigrant children, and cultivating a self-help ethos in a democratic space. "The garden itself," she writes, "is rarely the end goal but rather facilitates agendas that reach beyond the scope of gardening."
The Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), a food policy organization with more than 200 member groups, defines urban agriculture as "the growing, processing, and distribution of food and other products through intensive plant cultivation and animal husbandry in and around cities." It divides urban agriculture into commercial farms, community gardens and backyard gardens. But programs like Boston's Food Project have begun to collapse such distinctions. They run commercial farms, but they also invest in their communities and create local supply networks.
According to the 2000 Census, 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities or suburbs. Food travels 25 percent farther that it did in 1980, and fruits and vegetables spend up to 14 days in transit. The CFSC notes, "Most fruit and vegetable varieties sold in supermarkets are chosen for their ability to withstand industrial harvesting equipment and extended travel, not for their taste or nutritional quality."
The Food Project began on Ward Cheney's farm in Lincoln, Mass., about 24 miles west of Boston, with the goal of strengthening young people's connection to the land. They started by busing city kids out to the country, but the group now farms five urban plots--a total of 2.5 acres. Each summer the Food Project employs 60 kids to work on both the urban and rural farms. After the summer, the youth can return as interns to learn how to run the project's farmers' markets and commercial kitchen.
In the Midwest, Growing Power runs three farms in Chicago, youth employment and education programs and a world famous vermiculture (worm compost) project.
In Oakland, Calif., People's Grocery operates five urban gardens in the largely black and Latino communities of West and North Oakland, as well as a youth nutrition program staffed by young people.
In Brooklyn, Added Value has turned an old asphalt baseball diamond into a full-functioning farm. And in Philadelphia, Mill Creek Farm is using storm runoff to irrigate its urban farm. Indeed, community agriculture projects are sprouting up in cities across the country--in San Francisco (Alemany Farm), Buffalo (Massachusetts Avenue Project), Birmingham, Ala. (Jones Valley Urban Farm), and Houston (Urban Harvest). According to the USDA, the number of farmers' markets has grown by 50 percent since 1994, and the federal Community Food Projects Competitive Grant Program is funding more than twice as many groups as it did a decade ago.
The organic food movement is rapidly changing how America eats and grows its food. Between 1997 and 2001, farmers added a million acres of certified organic land, doubling the amount of organic pasture and more than doubling organic cropland. This reflects not just a rise of specialty retailers like Whole Foods. By 2003 organic products could be found in 73 percent of conventional grocery stores according to a USDA study, and last summer, the retail giant Wal-Mart began selling organics. But Erika Allen, development director of Growing Power, says the organic label doesn't tell the whole story. "There are organic farmers on the walls of Whole Foods who have some atrocious labor practices--atrocious. They're just like plantation owners. People don't know that."Moreover, organic food is still largely inaccessible to low-income communities and communities of color. And the costs associated with being certified organic have led many urban agriculture programs to shy away from being certified. "We are what most folks would consider organic, but we're not certified," the Food Project's Burns says. "That's not as important to us. We're in the community; folks can just come by and see our practices. It's about transparency."
"We're using food to make social connections," says Growing Power's Allen. "It's not just about growing food--it's about practices and how people form relationships, get comfortable with each other and learn to communicate through really owning the food system."
Oases in the food desert
In West Oakland, home to City Slickers and People's Grocery, liquor stores outnumber grocery stores 40 to one. The most readily available food is fried. On the other side of the country, in Added Value's Brooklyn neighborhood, the last grocery store shut its doors in 2001. Federal studies classify such communities as "food insecure," but they are popularly known as "food deserts." A study in the June 2001 Journal of Nutrition found that women living in "food insecure" areas were more likely to be overweight and thus at risk for obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.
These projects also help people sustain themselves. Both City Slicker and Food Project run backyard gardening programs that provide lead testing to determine the safety of soil, wooden planters, seeds, seedlings and ongoing assistance for the life of the garden.
Since the program's inception in 2005, City Slicker has helped build 50 backyard gardens and has set a goal of 50 per year in the future. "We're building a whole community of urban gardeners," says Rosenthal.
According to City Slicker, 40 percent of the 2006 participants were able to grow half or more of their household's produce, 30 percent experienced a positive change in their health, and 50 percent added more fresh vegetables to their diet. City Slicker also buys excess produce from these backyard gardens at a premium organic rate, which it then sells at a lower price at its community farm stand.
Four years ago, Geralina Fortier, then 17, got involved with People's Grocery to fulfill a high school community service requirement. Today, Fortier coordinates People's youth nutrition programs. "We believe that youth are the best agents for change, especially to one another, so we create workshops and presentations about eating healthy, " says Fortier, as she shovels compost onto a new bed at People's 55th Street garden in West Oakland.
"I'm pretty radical about my diet," says Fortier, "A lot of my friends thought I was crazy and still do." After three years as a strict vegan, she recently switched to a raw food diet because "that's how we should be eating anyway."
"We're not growing farmers, we're trying to grow young people who are inspired by the world around them and who care and see themselves as empowered to take action in fixing things," says Caroline Loomis, Added Value's community education coordinator.
Loomis sees urban agriculture as a way to transform the meaning of urban green space. "Can you imagine what our cities would like if every park had a farm built into it?" she asks.
Three years ago, the Boston Area Health Education Center asked the Food Project to farm raised flowerbeds on the roof of Boston Medical Center's parking garage. The Food Project hauled 50 crates of compost to the roof in shopping carts and started with a crop of tomatoes, summer squash and eggplant. Andrews says that neighborhood people have "come over really excited about this lot. The roof is pretty ugly. Even with the vegetables, it's still pretty ugly. But it's a great improvement from what was here."
The recognition that the urban landscape needs green space has opened doors to city partnerships. The asphalt lot that Added Value farms is owned by New York City, and the Brooklyn Zoo supplies compost. In Chicago, Growing Power has partnered with the Chicago Park District to operate two quarter-acre model urban farms, one next to Michigan Avenue in downtown Grant Park and the other in Jackson Park on the South Side.
A food, not a farm bill
Andy Fisher is one of the founders of the CFSC, which formed in 1994 to lobby for changes in the 1996 bill. For Fisher and others wanting to transform food access and production in the United States, changing what the government funds in the farm bill is crucial. "You've got a structure of commodity programs subsidizing--corn, dairy and meat--to the exclusion of other crops," says Fisher. "Take the food pyramid: The farm bill subsidizes the exact opposite of that: 72 percent of all farm subsidies are going into dairy and meat production and smaller amounts into grains for human consumption. The only fruits or vegetables subsidized are apples. So there is a real impact on people's diets. In a very broad sense the farm bill is a food bill, and should be thought of that way."
The version of the farm bill passed in the House this summer has expanded funding to encourage food stamp recipients to shop at farmers' markets: $32 million is allocated to the renamed Farmers' Market Promotion Program; also the bill expands both who is eligible to sell at markets, and the availability of Electronic Benefit Transfer technology to process food stamps as payment. A 2004 UCLA study by researchers at the School of Public Health found that offering those receiving government food assistance (in this case, the Women, Infants and Children program) access to farmers' markets resulted in increased fruit and vegetable consumption that continued beyond the offered incentive.
The House version of the farm bill also allocates $30 million over the next five years to the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program, which, since its inception in 1996, has funded 240 programs to help low-income communities meet their nutritional needs. (The Food Project and Growing Power have received three grants each.) Stephanie Larsen, policy organizer with the CFSC cautions however that in the 2007 bill CFP funds were changed from mandatory (that is, guaranteed at that level each year) to discretionary (subject to the annual budget approval). "Due to the nature of the appropriations process, there is always a significant possibility that CFP will get much less than $30 million a year and we would have to fight for it annually against all other programs."
Owning what you till
The 2007 farm bill may help urban agriculture, but larger questions about sustainability remain. "No one is against gardening," says UIC's Lawson, "but not everyone wants to fund it."
"It's important to us that the food we grow here is available to people in the community," says the Food Project's Andrews. "That means it's not sold at the prices it would be if it was sold downtown." Selling at high-end markets is an issue that the Food Project grapples with because it has the potential to allow the organization to sustain itself. Right now, the group makes around $20,000 off the produce grown on its Dorchester land. If the Food Project sold it at the Copley Square farmers' market, opposite the Neiman Marcus, Andrews estimates they could get twice as much. "I think there is a sense at the organization that it could lend something to the urban agriculture movement if we were economically sustainable."
Because of funding difficulties, over the years many community food projects have died, which hurts those communities that have come to rely on their resources.
For this reason, Lawson stresses land ownership as one path to sustainability. "The exact audience will change over time--but the hardest thing is transforming that space, that earth," she says. "Once you have that tillable soil, it's there for whatever programs want to come along and claim it. The gardeners need to look at land use and ownership of sites, and work with the city to keep them permanent."
For urban agriculturists it all comes back to empowering and investing in community. "[W]e expect to see more people of all ages and backgrounds first becoming educated food consumers, and then becoming engaged food citizens," concludes the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program 10 year progress report. "As healthful food and healthy eating become the norm, we anticipate that more people will look for broader regional and policy-based answers to the problems that continue to beset their communities."