In 2011, a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology reported intriguing findings about an ambitious program to green vacant lots, again in Philadelphia. From 1999 to 2008, nearly 4,500 of the city’s vacant lots were greened—trash was removed, the land was graded, grass and trees were planted, and low fences were installed around the lots. The researchers found “consistent, statistically significant” reductions in gun assaults in the areas near the greened lots, compared with areas near lots that were left alone.
I love suburbia not for what it is, but for what it could be. While most other houses on my street have grass lawns, my yard sprouts zucchinis, tomatoes, pomegranates, kale, spinach, apples, figs, guavas, almonds, garlic, onion, strawberries, and more. Over 500 plant species all in all. We grow more than 3000 pounds of food per year on a plot of land the size of a basketball court—enough fruits and vegetables to feed my family of four year-round. Our house is part of a growing global movement of people involved in urban farming.
The simple act of planting a garden can shape issues like economics, health, and politics at the same time because food is an essential focal point of human activity. As the urban farming movement grows, here are five ways that it will transform our world
1. Renewed local economies. Local neighbor-to-neighbor commerce generally doesn’t happen in our communities. Residential areas almost never include common spaces where community exchanges might happen. Likewise, because selling homemade bread to your neighbors is illegal in most areas, the law discourages community commerce, and instead encourages you to purchase from the supermarket chain.
In my own community, the urban farming movement has reinvigorated local commerce. Instead of buying oranges, I now trade pumpkin for oranges from my neighbor’s tree. If urban farming continued to grow, it would cause a massive and positive economic disruption by introducing local food production that would compete with the corporate mainstream on price, quality, convenience, and level of service.
2. Environmental stewardship. Industrial agriculture is a major source of fossil fuel pollution. Petrochemicals are used to fertilize, spray, and preserve food. Plastics made from oil are used to package the food, and gasoline is used to transport food worldwide. Urban farming unplugs us from oil by minimizing the transport footprint and using organic cultivation methods.
While industrial agriculture often maneuvers to avoid paying for environmental externalities, urban farmers directly bear the ecological costs of their actions. This makes urban farmers better stewards of their land because they draw their nutrition from it. Rather than using chemicals that destroy soil biology, urban farming culture stresses sustainable organic techniques that enrich the topsoil.
3. A focus on local politics. Urban farming makes it clearer and easier for people to be involved in local politics by bringing issues that directly affect neighborhoods to the fore. Local regulations become far more relevant to the day-to-day life of a person attempting to cultivate their own food than most issues normally discussed on CNN. The growth of urban farming has already resulted in large-scale legal pushes like the California Cottage Food Act, which will allow people to legally sell certain homemade goods like jams and breads. Other neighborhood issues such as the raising of chickens, beekeeping for the production of honey, or the chlorination of water are already in the sights of urban farmers and environmentalists alike.
4. A revolution of health and nutrition. Increased awareness about the negative health effects of food from the industrial food chain is itself a big reason why urban farmers grow their own food. When you feed your produce to your family, you’re less likely to douse it in poisons. Local food has more freshness, flavor, and nutrient retention because it goes through less transportation and processing. As the urban farming movement grows, it will mean more accessibility to nutritious local food and more time spent doing the healthy physical work of gardening. This could result in less obesity, less chronic disease, and decreased healthcare spending.
5. A flowering of community interaction. Urban farming is a lifestyle inherently centered on community. Growing food is, after all, a cooperative effort. In my own community, I see that the knowledge of how and what to grow is exchanged, seeds are swapped, labor is shared, and the harvest is traded. As urban farming grows, a stronger interdependence within communities is likely to result as local food systems bring more community interaction into people’s daily lives.
The most important movement of our time. Although there are many other notable initiatives today, the influence of urban farming is uniquely widespread because more people live in cities than rural areas and food is a central necessity that affects everything at once. The seeds of change are already being planted in homes like mine across the world. For these seeds to grow and blossom, we need to demand more local food so that the market for urban-grown produce expands. We also need to put pressure on our legal system to allow easier local trade and more local food production.
Imagine if we grew food instead of grass. Every community is a local food economy waiting to come to life. The answer to climate change, the health crisis, and the recession economy is right outside your door. I’ll meet you at the garden fence.
Photos courtesy of Ro Kumar, editor of localblu.com, a blog covering urban farming and sustainability.
FILM: Generation Food
How Big Pork Screws Small Towns
I’ve argued often that the food system functions like an economic sieve, draining away wealth. Imagine, say, a suburb served by a handful of fast-food chains plus a supermarket or Walmart or two. Profits from residents’ food dollars go to distant shareholders; what’s left behind are essentially low-skill, low-wage clerical jobs and mountains of generally low-quality, health-ruining food.
But the food system’s secret scandal is that it’s economically extractive in farming communities areas, too—and especially in the places where industrial agriculture is most established and intensive. I first learned about this surprising fact from the Minnesota-based community economics expert Ken Meter, specifially this 2001 study on a farm-heavy region of Minnesota. And now Food and Water Watch, working with the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, has come out with an excellent new report documenting the food industry’s effect on several ag-intense regions, with the main spotlight on the hog-centric counties of Iowa, the nation’s leading hog-producing state.
Source: Mother Jones
“It was part of my proposal to the city that I would to teach kids about how to grow food and about food systems—that was my other purpose,” says Allen. “Because when you educate kids, they take that back to their homes and tell their parents.” In effect, Allen had sown the seeds for altering the existing food system, especially in inner cities, and established a way to push for food and social justice. “Everyone, regardless of economic status, should be able to access healthy, nutritious foods,” says Allen.
Illustration by Jessica De Jesus
FILM: Generation Food