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.

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