The Socio-Economic Benefits of Urban Farming

The benefits of urban agriculture are often touted as solely related to the health benefits of locally grown food and the access provided to what is commonly touted as food deserts. There is a tendency to separate human activity into pods; while not recognizing the holistic nature of human existence. The popularity of urban agriculture has swiftly consumed many major metropolitan areas giving many a gentrified urban center the luxury of locally grown arugula or fresh specialty tomatoes. However, not enough attention is given to the ability of urban agriculture to benefit the distressed communities in our society socially and economically. Arguably the oldest of human professions, the act of growing food is not exclusive to the desires of middle-class America only. Globally, irrespective of class, race, religion, political ideology or gender – the great equalizer is food. Why? Simply put? Everyone has to eat. It is within this context that I would like to discuss several other socio-economic benefits that are often under-remarked upon in the public discourse.

Food security refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. Major urban centers are by far reliant upon industrial agriculture for their population’s food supply. As a result, a great deal of food consumed by people in the city is shipped from far away, out of state and even out of the country for public consumption. The availability of food and one’s access to it are primarily determined by the market whereas if you are poor; the supermarkets are far away and if you are middle class they are easier to access. According to the USDA, a food desert is any area in the industrialized world where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. Food deserts are prevalent in rural as well as urban areas and are most prevalent in low-socioeconomic minority communities. (See slide 1 for a map of Richmond Virginia’s food deserts.) Despite an overwhelming high public discourse regarding food deserts resultant from Michelle Obama’s campaign against them; the question of what food (GMO vs. Organic) will be made available to low-income communities found in food deserts has not reached the same level of intensity. Participants in urban agriculture projects have the power to define what food is available to them by growing it themselves how they want to grow it.

The relative unavailability of fresh organic fruits and vegetables to large segments of any society poses significant threats to the overall wellness of any given society. Heavily relegated to conversations regarding obesity and overall health and wellness – the prevalence of food deserts aren’t often used to examine how within a problem; we can find the solution. The blight of food deserts presents a unique opportunity for communities to generate solutions for the most intrinsic of needs from within itself. Through the use of urban farming communities can not only grow their own food – they can also create opportunities to sell the food that they grow and products created from that which is grown on the land – to other community members, restaurants, and retailers. This concept is often termed an entrepreneurial garden, but call it what you want; the social ramifications of self-sufficient sustainable agriculture on community building are overwhelming.

Poverty in the City of Richmond is a serious issue. The percent of the population living in poverty in the city sat at 27% as of 2014. Close to half of the Richmond Metropolitan Region (Chesterfield, Henrico, Richmond, Hanover, Goochland, and Powhatan) live in Richmond. 19% of the households in the city of Richmond are without a car. These factors on begin to scratch the surface on what can only be described as systemic poverty. The subsequent social pathologies associated with poverty are innumerable; suffice it to say that poverty begets poverty. Through the usage of urban agriculture projects, the Richmond community can effectively hit numerous issues simultaneously. Poverty debilitates the culture of a society. As my elder puts it there is no culture without agriculture, and It is my argument that a pivotal axis around which urban revitalization must revolve in the future of the city is that of urban agriculture.

Many major cities and developing nation have successfully utilized urban agriculture to sustain and/or enhance their food security.

  • In Haiti, SIFEUSA indicates helping the village of LaGonave with the development of urban faming enterprise of more than 200 gardens not only increasing the availability of food but also enhancing economic development via sell of surplus food at local markets to the tune of over $14,000 in produce sales and consumption of over 4000 pounds of produce grown locally.
  • In Havana, Cuba due food shortages resultant from US trade embargos and the fall of the Soviet Union – the bulk of food production takes place inland with a heavy emphasis on urban agriculture. Endorsed heavily by the state, currently 30% of Havana’s available land cultivates food with over 30,000 farmers growing food on over 8000 farms and gardens. In 1997, urban farms and gardens in Havana provided 30,000 tons of vegetables, tubers and fruit, 3,650 tons of meat, 7.5 million eggs, and 3.6 tons of medicinal plant materials
  • In Harare, Zimbabwe – primarily women spearheaded urban agriculture (60%) over 25% of Harare’s available land. Households with agricultural practice have healthier children and are economically better off than their counterparts.
  • On the island of Negros, Phillipines malnutrition among urban and rural children was reduced from 40 % to 25% in two years with the implementation of biointensive gardens.
  • Kona Kai Farms in Berkeley, California generated $238,000 from one-half acre in 1988 through sale of organic specialty greens.
  • Tanzania’s 1988 census found that urban agriculture was the second largest employer in the district of Dar es Salaam, population about 2 million (the first was petty trading and labor). One in five adults of working age in Dar es Salaam is a farmer.

Urban agriculture projects can culminate in a wide variety of entrepreneurial ventures from farmers markets for the sale of produce grown in the market by growers and other products, job training for development of services (I.e. landscaping, agricultural services, business management and administration) produce for sale to local retailers, the community or local restaurants, to development of non-profit and social entrepreneurship ventures targeted to addressing the needs of widespread urban agriculture to address issues of food security throughout the metropolitan region, state and country. Locally grown produce also reduces overhead for transportation to local retailers and restaurants not to mention carbon emissions for consumers traveling back and forth to supermarkets to access fresh fruits and vegetables for their families. Special emphasis can be placed on workforce development for ex-felons to prevent recidivism.

Urban Agriculture has the capacity to increase property values of surrounding building and homes. Communities grow closer via working in the gardens and associated farmers markets that may accompany them. Green spaces increase feelings of safety and build ties within the community. Urban farms provide excellent learning environments for children and young adults allowing for intergenerational and cross-cultural dialogue.

Urban farms provide a focal locus for community activity be it festivals or informal meetings, fostering greater social interaction from communities where neighbors may have limited interaction otherwise. The development and maintenance of the site when underdone with input and collaboration from the community it is located can build long-lasting nurturing relationships for all parties involved.

In closing, it is essential to note that urban agriculture is not the cure-all for social ills related to poverty however it can play a major role in addressing the effects holistically. By addressing the health ramifications of food insecurity and food deserts while employing an empowerment model revolving around entrepreneurship and sustainable food systems – urban farming can catapult the city of Richmond onto the fast track for being a tier 1 city.

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