Urban Agriculture for Food Security: Good but Not Enough

For 12 years, City Slicker Farms (CSF), an urban farming and food justice organization in West Oakland, California, has been growing fresh fruits and vegetables for residents who otherwise have very limited options for healthy food. In 2011, CSF produced and distributed 9,000 pounds of produce and cultivated more than 69,000 square feet of land. Working there as a farm intern, I helped to grow and harvest hundreds of pounds of lettuce, peas, and squash, which we sold to local residents at a weekly, sliding scale farm stand.  Yet, through all our hard effort, we only delivered produce to 510 people, 2% of the 25,000 residents in the community.

Today, with the rocky state of the economy, rising food prices, an increase in diet-related health concerns as well as the environmental concerns associated with food production, cities are increasingly turning to urban agriculture. Community gardens, urban farms, and backyard gardens are popping up all over the urban landscape. Abandoned lots are converted to booming gardens and vegetables are sprouting up in the most unlikely places: on rooftops, in traffic circles, even in truck beds. I too am taking advantaged of a few small dirt patches and empty containers around my house to sow a few seeds. However, while these efforts play a role in the growing societal shift in our approach to food, ultimately, urban agriculture will not solve the ever-growing need for increased access to healthy food that plagues the nation.

One of the biggest challenges to our food system is the growing number of families who don’t have access to food—let alone real food, that is minimally processed, healthy, sustainable, and affordable. According to the USDA, today more than 15% of all households—approximately 18 million American households—are food insecure, up 1.5 times since 2000. Right now, we need to focus efforts on finding ways to sustainably feed these families, the some 50.1 million people, who are without fresh food, in a way that is beneficial to both the people and the planet. It is this massive scale that renders the production of urban agriculture insufficient.

Urban farming and gardening efforts like CSF have blossomed in recent years.  Yet, their ability to boost the food security of a metropolitan region still remains unproven. R. Ford Denison, a professor at University of Minnesota, estimates that a farm the size of Connecticut is required to grow enough food to feed New York City. Coupled with rising urban property costs and high real estate values, there is not enough space, nor resources, to accommodate the dietary demands of a dense urban population.

While limited in its reach, this is not to say that urban agriculture is counter-productive to the food movement. There are many environmental and social benefits of producing food in an urban environment. Much of the time, it isn’t just about the food, it is about community. Gardening is a means of bringing communities together, creating a sense of place and building social cohesion, by sharing the labor and the fruits of the labor with those around you. And it is healthy. Not only does gardening increase physical activity, but urban farms also provide green space in a densely populated, cement-laden landscape.

In cities overrun by processed foods and fast food restaurants, urban agriculture helps reconnect city dwellers with their food, providing a new sense of awareness of what food production entails and what it means to eat real food.  It can also act as a means of nutrition education, encouraging people to eat fresh fruits and exposing them to new and different types of food as well as help increase overall consumption of healthier foods. In their annual report, City Slicker Farms, for example, reported that before shopping at their farm stand, 44% of their customers ate produce a few times a week or less. Since shopping at the farm stand, half have increased their consumption to at least once a day.

But what about the other 24,500+ West Oakland residents? With only one small grocery store in the entire neighborhood, they continue turning to corner stores that expose them to very poor and limited food options, or they travel long distances to do their shopping—most likely on public transportation. Sure, urban agriculture plays a role in creating a societal shift in the way we think about what and how we choose to eat. But what it is not is a means to solve the growing food crisis that provides real, healthy food for all people. Realistically, the amount of food required to sustain our growing population far exceeds the productivity potential of urban agriculture.

In comparison, focusing efforts on bringing a grocery store to the area has the potential to reach a far larger percentage of the population and could have a much greater impact on overall health. Working with a community to create a store that meets their needs and is attentive and mindful can not only provide increased access to more people, but can also provide some of the added benefits similar to those of an urban farm: When done correctly, it too can act as a meeting hub that can strengthen the community. Such a store also has the potential to engage and inform residents about healthy food options that are fresh and affordable as well as provide employment opportunities and improve overall economic development.

The need to increase food access is a much larger issue than growing a hundred pounds of tomatoes in an abandoned lot. In a system that needs to provide increased food access to increasing numbers of people, more energy must be spent on creating outlets capable of reaching a large audience. Only this will produce a real systemic change.

Lauren Heumann is a first year dual City Planning and Public Health Master’s student at UC Berkeley. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, she has been gardening and raising chickens since an early age. Today, while she only has space for a few fresh herbs, she can also be found at the local farmers market, selling fresh produce and eggs with Say Hay Farms, a small, 20 acres, ecologically sustainable farm. She can be reached at lheumann@berkeley.edu.