Annie Best
Beyond the Community Garden
Annie BestFebruary 10, 2015

Community and Regional Foods System Project

Community and Regional Foods System Project

Over the past decade, urban agriculture has become a popular strategy for neighborhood revitalization. On its surface, it hits on buzzy food trends like eating local food and organic produce. But digging a little deeper, urban agriculture—when done right—can be part of the solution for a more robust suite of resilience issues facing cities today:

The Economy and Jobs

In cities like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh, urban farms are putting people to work.  The best medium- and large-scale urban farms incorporate training and local hiring into their business model, providing classes in both basic (i.e., simple math or landscaping) and more advanced (i.e., carpentry, accounting, or plant science) skills that build workforce capacity. Smaller operations are often eligible for federal or state small business assistance, and can be self-sustaining businesses for local residents.

According to PolicyLink, a national non-profit dedicated to advancing policy solutions that lift up urban communities, urban agriculture also goes a long way in keeping “local money local.” Dollars earned are recirculated in the community, whether it is new profits enabling new hiring or farm workers spending their paychecks locally.

  • Best Practice Example: The Evergreen Cooperative’s Green City Growers Cooperative in Cleveland is a 3.25 acre hydroponic greenhouse that grows a variety of leafy greens and herbs that are successfully marketed to local restaurants and institutional food service. Once the operation ramps up to full capacity, it will have trained and employed 42 people–all of whom will have an ownership stake, creating jobs and building community wealth.

Food Deserts

In many of the poorest urban areas across the United States, access to healthy, fresh food is difficult. These neighborhoods are referred to as food deserts, where the only easily accessible food supply comes from convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Introducing  local sources of produce can open up a number of new strategies to make healthy food easy to obtain, including neighborhood farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), subscription-based services that provide participants with fresh fruit and vegetables each week.

PolicyLink released a report in 2012, “Growing Urban Agriculture,” which makes the link between access to fresh food and issues that have deep health impacts on neighborhoods, such as obesity and diabetes.

  • Best Practice Example: Growing Power, a Chicago-based urban agriculture nonprofit that operates farms in urban areas in Illinois and Wisconsin. It has an innovative business model that combines community-focused workforce training with sophisticated fresh food distribution systems. Students from local high schools and colleges are trained and become paid employees after successfully completing the program. Farms are located in public housing projects and public parks. The produce is sold to local restaurants and distributed to residents via a CSA-style program. Growing Power’s work is currently being scaled up through a mayoral initiative in the city of Chicago.

Community Development

With the right resources, access to food and economic activity can be easily quantified and documented. A more nebulous outcome of urban agriculture are community development benefits. Urban farms can provide neighborhood gathering places, make connections between older and younger generations through food growing and cooking learning opportunities, and build relationships between neighborhood newcomers and current residents.

  • Best Practice Example: Providence, Rhode Island’s Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) is devoted to helping neighborhoods use vacant property to grow food through technical assistance and networking. Many participants in their community garden network are recent immigrants from countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Liberia, and Haiti.  SCLT works with the city to turn underused government-owned property into urban agricultural land, which is leased to individuals and groups. Most of the produce cultivated goes directly into the kitchens of those who grow it, but the success of the program has spurred interest from local stores and farmers’ markets, bringing both the food and culture of the relative newcomers to the larger Providence community.

Urban agriculture can be implemented from the top-down or bottom-up and by non-profit or for-profit organizations. But successful urban farming operations that  fulfill the promise of bringing fresh food and economic and community development to cities have two common traits: (1) scaling up, whether that be through production volume or the number of community members involved and (2) maintaining community-mindfulness as part of the mission.