Urban Agriculture: Rethinking the Food System

Food Deserts, supplemental nutritional assistance programs (SNAP), the industrialized food system, food factories—all of these are food related qualms that daily become more real.  Is there a way that these issues can be fixed?

Not only are many cities aware of these problems, but they are using Urban Agriculture as a way to combat them.  This article will look at three cities in depressed rust-belt areas of the mid-west and their efforts and processes of Urban Agriculture as well as the implications of this phenomenon and possibilities for the future.  First perhaps some information on Urban Agriculture:

Breaking Through Concrete Is a great book which documents Urban Agriculture across America.

Hodgson et. al. gives a a more “concrete” definition for Urban Agriculture:

“Urban Agriculture is embedded in communities.  Yet, it is part of the larger food-system-continuum, including not only the production of food within urban, sub-urban, and rural built environments, but also its related physical and organizational infrastructure and associated policies and programs” [2011:14]

Dubbeling et. al., in Cities, Poverty, and Food (2010) expands on this definition by articulating some usable parameters:

  1. Types of actors (family, community, company, organization, government stimulated)
  2. Locations (rooftops, backyards, greenhouses, suburbs, outskirts, hydroponics)
  3. Types of products (produce, mushroom, poultry etc.)
  4. Scale of production/technology (hydroponics, aquaponics, computerized, good old fashioned farming)
  5. Economics scope (personal subsistence, small local sale, larger business sales, etc.)
  6. Degree of market orientation (large, small, or mid-size business, or non-profit)

Urban Agriculture is no new concept and has been implemented in cities globally for decades. While America stands at the forefront in terms of technology and science, when it comes to meeting our very basic needs in farming, we are decades behind. A recent statistic found in Breaking Through Concrete reveals that 3% of the food grown in Kansas, reaches any of that state’s populous. The reason being our industrialized food system where food travels great distances to reach our local grocery and produces suppliers.

This intervention in local farming by multi-national food industries has given many Americans an wealth of variety to choose from, but has left many other areas without food and produce in their local cities. Their answer: Urban Agriculture. Take for example the city of Accra Ghana:

Or perhaps a bigger city like Beijing, China:

We can see that Urban Agriculture is a real answer to real problems. So what exactly are the problems in our case studies of mid-west cities. We can start broad with a city like Detroit, a city with a 28% unemployment rate, 36% below the poverty line, and a loss of almost 500,000 people over the past 30 years.  From a food related standpoint, Detroiters spend on average 13% of household expenditure on food, and have only 1.59 square feet of retail space per-capita (compared to a 3 sq. foot standard). (SOURCE: Detroit Food Policy Council Annual Food Report)
This afore-mentioned statistic is what is known as a “food desert.”  They are defined by more than 33% of a census tract living more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.  An interactive USDA map of these areas can be accessed here.

The city of Cleveland has a high number of food deserts.  Grewal and Grewal note that “several ‘food deserts’ exist where fast food restaurants are 4.5 times closer than grocery stores selling fresh produce to the average household” (2012:2-3).  On top of this, Cleveland  (like Detroit) is met with an enormous amount of vacant lots that eat away at city expenses.  So

Yet Grewal and Grewal took at look at all of this vacant land, and, simulating real growing processes estimated that the city could become 100% sustainable in produces and 94% sustainable in poultry.

So urban farming is a real solution to real problems and is not some kind of esoteric niche that is remarkable in passing by.  There is real potential in this untapped market both in terms of sustainability and profit.  Here is a Cleveland urban farmer at Wonder Farm articulating some of these concepts:

Buffalo, New York is another city that faces urban problems of poverty and crime.  And, in the face of this, has created the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) which has claimed 18 vacant lots and has begun to produce 30,000 pounds of produce annually while targeting local youth community members for employment:

MAP has gone further to team up with local stakeholders like Grassroots Garden, Urban Roots, the Curtis Farm Foundation, and the Wilson Street Urban Farm to align their value, promote urban agriculture within Buffalo and work with policy officials to stimulate urban agriculture projects.  This alignment of stakeholders exists in Cleveland and Detroit too both of which have their own food policy councils (See Detroit, Cleveland).

What we can see demonstrated by these three cities is that: 1. Urban Agriculture is a real solution to food related problems, 2. Urban Agriculture is a viable solution to city self-sustainability and 3. Urban Agriculture transcends an answer to food problems by addressing answers to classic urban problems of poverty, vacated land, and crime.

The Detroit annual food report gives a great graphic of this phenomenon:

So what must be done to keep this process moving?  The industrial food industry has a strong grasp that has resulted in projects seen above inching along at slow paces.  The sad reality is that fast food and huge subsidized food is the choice of the majority.  Yet the answer lies in something as simple as the problem itself: agriculture.  Indeed it is hard to conceptualize major multi-national corporations using the word agriculture without understanding culture itself.  But, from the standpoint of a folklorist, it is the lived experiences in small groups that are definitive, expressive, and humanistic.  Indeed the way we grow and eat, and indeed the act of growing and eating are full fledged examples of these interactions.

While some may be out in urban farms in America or abroad, the movement needs more than the notice that this article gives.  It needs a true departure from the old culture, and a re-enchanted, renewed and revitalized sense of what a community is and what the stuff of our culture can be.


Key Concept: Policy

Addressed in class on 3/29, I covered a very brief overview of policy as it relates to the new social problems.  Policy is a fascinating multi-faceted playing field where numerous stakeholders and interests come into play.  Policy makers range from local municipal organizations to federal government agencies and congressional/executive leaders.  In class I listed a number of policy stakeholders that includes but is not limited to: interest groups, lobbyists, private firms, advocacy groups, non-profit organizations and NGOs.

While the government instantiation of policy is meant to equate justice to all of these voices, we also discussed in class how this is not always the case.  From readings in my Social Stratification and Inequality Textbook (Harold Kerbo) we looked at the number of key policy makers that are associated with major corporations and industries throughout presidential administrations, congressional committees, and even supreme court justices.  We also discussed the power big money has to influence policy making where major funding can effectively align itself with major academic institutions to create policy research groups, with biased results.

Stemming from the topic of policy creation, we also talked about policy fulfillment and execution.  Not all policies are held to the same scrutiny and there is often policy-breaking or simple lack of enforcement.  We discussed the “fire alarm” versus “police patrol” methods of policy enforcement.

Finally I offered some advice in policy research in the larger picture of our research projects.  I hope that I offered a good look at the multidimensional aspect of policy and if anyone has any questions, feel free to contact me!


For my project in finding community involvement relating to my are of interest, I came across SPROUTS, also known as Students Producing Organics Under the Sun.  SPROUTS is a community garden run by volunteers through the office of sustainability at IU.  While it is a student run organization, it has a larger goal of reaching out to the greater Bloomington community in hopes to educate and circulate ideas and truths about the state of food production today.

A blurb found here about the garden is chalk full of buzz words.  Environment, instability, organic, and food systems, are just a few of the words this organization uses.  The general goal is to promote local growing, harvesting, and “autonomy” within the community of Bloomington, and strive to leave behind dependence on industrial globalized food systems.

Indiana University is undoubtedly an enormous operation with thousands of students using its facilities for food daily.  One of the interesting disparities I want to further investigate is IU’s large reliance on industrial food industries to keep this operation in progress.  Although the office of sustainability is behind works like SPROUTS and other urban garden projects around campus, it is still in major reliance on large scale food services to accomplish its goal.

Despite disparities between student life and student involvement, this is no doubt a great example of an academic  institution working within a community to propagate awareness to a new social problem and one that will require greater and greater attention in the future.  Industrialized food systems no doubt have their benefit on institutions like IU, yet places like SPROUTS can show sustainable, efficient, and healthy alternatives on top of creativity and expression.



“Students Producing Organics Under the Sun (SPROUTS)”, n.d. http://www.indiana.edu/~sustain/Clearinghouse/Students_Producing_Organics_under_the_Sun_(SPROUTS).html.
Arroyo, Steven. “Urban Gardens Sprout Up On IU Campus.” Indiana Public Media. News, June 6, 2011, Online edition. http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/urban-gardens-sprout-iu-campus-16578/.

Go Find the Art!

Trained Eye Arts Center is a non-profit co-operative, a home for the arts in Bloomington.  There one can find a host of studios, rented out various local artists, art galleries throughout, and a functioning venue with multiple stages for entertainment and musical acts.  Owner and founder Adam Nahas has been featured in various publications in Bloomington and support is very steadily growing for this space.  Here is where things get interesting for me, in their “vision” (found at http://trainedeyearts.com):

“Some of our current projects include civic beautification and mural work, developing an open campus for art classes, eco-conscious studio, sustainable gallery, and community garden space. We envision a creative oasis dedicated to the enhancement of the northwest side of Bloomington and the community as a whole.”

There is an amazing amount of potential in this facility right here in Bloomington.  For me, it would be a great starting point to analyze the effects and their extent this area has on Bloomington.  Their projects with sustainable gardens in the community is a great starting point to examine what they are doing to raise awareness, promote sustainable growing, and a great shift away from industrialized food into secure, sovereign food systems.  This ties directly to art and has a number of other vestibules which flow from it such as the Bloomington farmers market, and various community garden projects.



                “Trained Eye Arts Center”, n.d. http://trainedeyearts.com/.
Thacker, Kate. “Trained Eye Arts Center Provides Studio Space, Community to Local Artists.” Indiana Daily Student, January 24, 2012. http://www.idsnews.com/news/story.aspx?id=85060&search=trained%20eye&section=search.

Peer Blog Commenting Summation

I enjoyed comparing and contrasting my views and take away points from the film Another World is Possible with my classmates.

One theme I found to be predominant is the role of the United States in our global functioning body.  I think that being self-aware in terms of our presence as a country is of utmost importance.  It is extremely easy to see ourselves as a country in our own personal lives.  We don’t want higher taxes, we want our daily freedoms, we want to eat, to watch TV to consume.  While these ideals are indeed a privilege to be happy about, we cannot lose sight of our fellow human beings across the globe.

The wonderful peer blogs I read and reviewed are here:




Nanotechnology: A Problem Definition

In mining for data on the topic of Nanotechnology, perhaps the most common motif was the question of, what is it?  Surely by definition it makes sense that it is simply, the technological development of very small things.  Yet, that is about all that anyone seems to be able to agree upon.  This is not only due to the little that is known about this technology, a development very far off in the future, but also because it entails uses for almost everything.  This broadness in definition is cause for debate, and explanation as Lindquist, Mosher-Howe, and Liu, explain in their 2010 article entitled “Nanotechnology. . .What Is It Good For (Absolutely Everything).

They bring to the table the concept of a problem definition, in other words something so broad and esoteric that it is difficult to interpret, create policy, or even form opinions.  The examples they use are words like “justice,” “freedom,” and “liberty.”  In relation to Nanotechnology they explain: “Nanotechnology, as it represents an often ill or ambiguously defined aggregate of technologies, has been strategically directed toward the multiple problems to which entrepreneurs have linked the ‘nanotechnology solution'” (3).  Thus nanotechnology presents a legitimate social issue by definition alone, for its size and scope cannot be summed up in one word.

The authors’ research goes on to point out that nanotechnology is being defined across the board and frequently with different spins and uses.  The group researched a number of articles published over the last few decades and created a chart illustrating the issue of nanotechnology’s panacea-like attributes:

Figure 1: Number of Articles by Sector Across Time. Taken from pg. 266 (12) of cited article


As seen in figure 1, different industries all have a great interest in the future of nanotechnology, all with competing goals, visions, and ends. So what can we conclude from this article?  The group urges the importance of a careful look at all angles of this exciting new technology.  Their idea of nanotechnology being a problem definition speaks to future policy processes that could shape this future innovation for better or worse.  Personally I think it vital to look at all of these definitions and from there, take a further step back, looking at the people it will affect, the industries it will shut down or revitalize, the environmental affect it will have, and the many social problems it may cause.


  1. Eric Lindquist, Katrina N. Mosher-Howe, and Xinsheng Liu, “Nanotechnology . . . What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Everything): A Problem Definition Approach,” Review of Policy Research 27, no. 3 (May 2010): 255-271.

Another World Is Possible Notes

Another World is possible documents the World Social Forum.  One that occurs in response to the World Economic Forum and discusses topics that are most likely overlooked during the latter event.  Upon watching this short film, some very relevant issues were discussed in forms of lecture, group discussion, protests, and artistic performances and media.  These topics ranged widely, yet focused mostly on the issues that generally can be classified as “global issues.”  Examples include global corporate dominance, the loss of local tradition and culture due to globalization, GMO Crops, and the military industrial complex.  Yet, the issue that fascinated me most was the seemingly unified consensus that the United States has an extremely overreaching hand on global politics and is seen by many as a bully, a world police force, and a destroyer of many things that people consider important and even sacred amongst their respective cultures.  Of specific note to me was the group discussion in which many people my age from other countries expressed their dichotomous reactions to the events of September 11.  Though many of them expressed condolences for the innocent death toll, they were torn in many ways, explaining that, though perhaps not the best way of showing it, the violence associated with 9/11 reflected a global sentiment of intrusion and overbearing imposed by the United States.  This made me think completely different of not only the events on September 11, but on our global image and duties.

Welcome to My Blog

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