Agriculture and Community Food Security in the United States:
Farming from the City Center to the Urban Fringe
Prepared by the Urban Agriculture Committee of the CFSC
Principal Author: Katherine H. Brown
Contributors: Martin Bailkey, Alison Meares-Cohen, Joe Nasr,
Jac Smit, Terri Buchanan
Editor: Peter Mann
the pdf version of the report
Table of Contents
Quiet Revolution of Urban Agriculture in the United States.............................3
IV. Who Is Raising Food
From Backyard Gardeners to Commercial
V. Challenges Facing Urban
Responses to these Challenges...............................................................................16
Resources, Publications, Websites...................................................................24
VIII. Note on Authors...................................................................................................27
The Quiet Revolution of Urban Agriculture in the United States
is a quiet revolution stirring in our food system. It is not happening so much
on the distant farms that still provide us with the majority of our food; it is
happening in cities, neighborhoods, and towns. It has evolved out of the basic
need that every person has to know their food, and to have some sense of
control over its safety and security.
It is a revolution that is providing poor people with an important
safety net where they can grow some nourishment and income for themselves and
their families. And it is providing an
oasis for the human spirit where urban people can gather, preserve something of
their culture through native seeds and foods, and teach their children about
food and the earth. The revolution is taking place in small gardens, under
railroad tracks and power lines, on rooftops, at farmers’ markets, and in the
most unlikely of places. It is a movement that has the potential to address a
multitude of issues: economic, environmental, personal health, and cultural.”
In Santa Cruz,
CA the Homeless Garden
Project raises vegetables, herbs and flowers on 3.5 acres.
Daily, 25 garden workers eat lunch freshly made from
the garden’s produce. The remaining vegetables are sold wholesale,
distributed to their community supported agriculture (CSA)
subscribers, and donated to a soup kitchen and an AIDS project.
Their estimated annual income from all sales, including
dried flower wreaths and other crafts as well as fresh produce,
MA, Freshmarket Aquafarm raises tilapia fish
in tanks. The company
projects a market goal of 100,000 pounds of live fish per
year sold regionally through ethnic markets, fish markets,
NY Village Farms, owned and operated by a
New Jersey-based for-profit corporation, sold 7-8 million
pounds of tomatoes grown off-soil on 35 acres of “brownfields,”
contaminated industrial land, using hydroponic techniques
IL youth with the Ivy
Crest Garden Project cleared away 3000 tires on nine contiguous
vacant lots to build an organic flower and vegetable market
garden where 30 ducks provide pest control and fertilizer.
Across North America, city dwellers have
increasing access to a variety of foods raised in all manner of urban
sites. Urban agriculture includes
greenbelts around cities, farming at the city’s edge, vegetable plots in
community gardens, and food production in thousands of vacant inner-city
lots. Further, urban agriculture
comprises fish farms, farm animals at public housing sites, municipal compost
facilities, schoolyard greenhouses, restaurant-supported salad gardens,
backyard orchards, rooftop gardens and beehives, window box gardens, and much
more. Urban farming includes
horticulture, aquaculture, arboriculture, and poultry and animal
husbandry. The potential for food
production in cities is great, and dozens of model projects are demonstrating
successfully that urban agriculture is both necessary and viable.
New citywide coalitions are emerging on behalf of
urban food security. Health and
nutrition advocates are joining with community gardeners, university extension
services, emergency food distributors and faith communities. Community economic development organizers,
as well as environmentalists concerned with urban waste reduction and
recycling, see the potential in urban farming.
A growing consumer demand for fresh, local and organic food in its turn
creates new markets for urban food production.
With growing momentum in the last decade,
individuals, organizations, communities, and governments have participated in a
variety of creative efforts to develop the capacity to raise food in and around
cities. Many of these efforts
specifically address the needs of urban residents who are living in poverty,
and consequently at grave risk for “food insecurity” – that is, threatened with
hunger, poor nutrition, and frequent anxiety about not having enough to eat.
The Goals of
Urban Agriculture and Community Food
Security in the United States: Farming from the City Center To the Urban Fringe is prepared by the Urban Agriculture Committee of
the Community Food Security Coalition to raise awareness of the ways that urban
agriculture can respond to food insecurity. The document advocates for policies
that promote small-scale urban and peri-urban farming, and thereby prepare the
next generation of urban farming leaders.
The task is to increase public knowledge and support, in order to
transform urban agriculture “from its cottage industry status into a major instrument
against hunger and poverty.”
The guide begins with an overview of the variety of
forms that urban agriculture is taking in the United States,
and the range of farmers found here, and addresses some of
the positive impacts – current and potential – of urban agriculture
on community food security. It also lists some of the challenges facing
urban agriculture and suggests ways that these might be addressed. The guide outlines key policy changes that
can further expand the effectiveness of urban agriculture. In the final section, a list is provided of
additional contacts and resources for those who are promoting
just urban food systems through urban agriculture.
“The growing, processing, and distributing of food
and other products
through intensive plant cultivation and animal
husbandry in and around cities.”
- Martin Bailkey and Joe Nasr
Community Food Security
“All persons in a community having access to culturally
acceptable, nutritionally adequate food through local
non-emergency sources at all times.“
Winne, Hugh Joseph, and Andy Fisher
“You mean, all this time I have been hungry and
have sometimes had to go without food, and now I find out food grows in the
A resident in the garden at Interfaith House in
As the twenty-first century begins and
urbanization increases throughout the world, in the United States 80 percent of
our population live in cities. This is
in marked contrast to 100 years ago when 50 percent of Americans lived on farms
or in small rural communities where they fed themselves with locally grown
foods. As our urban population has
grown, so too has the complexity of how to feed people who are so far removed
from the actual production of foods.
The sheer tonnage of foods that must be
transported daily to supply our cities’ residents is stunning. Our current food systems require vast
resources for complicated distribution services to move food from where it is
raised and processed to reach consumers in cities, with the average supermarket
food item in North America traveling 1400 miles. With increasing globalization,
our foods now travel even further distances than ever from all over the
world. While many enjoy the advantages
of this rich and nutritious array of foods, there are significant social,
economic, public health, and environmental costs to our food system.
environmental costs of industrial agriculture include groundwater
contamination, soil erosion, and loss of biodiversity. The social and economic
costs of a globalized food system include the devastation of rural communities,
with subsistence farmers among the poorest people on the planet, and
significant levels of hunger amidst plenty, even in the cities of the developed
world. The health costs of this system are seen in epidemic levels of obesity
and diet-related diseases. These are
some of the hidden costs of our corporate controlled food system.
farming is an essential tool that addresses a number of these problems in
innovative ways. Environmental
stewardship is enhanced through urban agriculture’s efforts to green cities.
Economic development and community revitalization are also achieved through
urban farming when neighborhoods take new pride in a community garden, when
inner-city residents gain the ability to grow and market their own food, when
inner-city farmers’ markets provide new opportunities for entrepreneurs and
commercial farmers. Individual health
and a sense of empowerment and well-being are created when urban dwellers have
access to local food and greater control over their own food system. Urban
farming takes account of the real cost of food, and the real benefits from
local and regional food.
Who Are the
One preventable consequence of our
food system is hunger in the midst of plenty.
An unacceptable number of Americans, including many children, do not get
enough to eat on a daily basis. A USDA document on U.S. food security released
in 2000 reports that even in the United States, where food is generally
plentiful, safe, nutritious, and relatively inexpensive, 31 million Americans
were food insecure in 1999, including approximately 12 million children.
Poverty, in all its ramifications, is
the root source of much food insecurity. In 2001, more than 31 million people
(11.3% of the population) lived below the poverty line, meaning that if they
were a family of four, they earned less than $17,960 each year.
People who are living in poverty are likely also to experience food
insecurity: children, inner-city residents, single parent female-headed
households, people of color, people living with disabilities, the elderly, and
farm workers. Each year in the past
decade more and more families reported that they ran out of food and didn’t
have money to buy more. This represents
one in ten households in the United States.
Hunger and homelessness rose sharply
in major American cities in 2001, according to the Conference of Mayors’
27-City Survey. Requests for emergency
food assistance climbed an average of 23 percent and requests for emergency
shelter an average of 13 percent in the 27 cities surveyed. Over the same period, resources available
for emergency food assistance failed to keep up with demand in most cities.
of Food Insecurity
Food insecurity, whether related to actual food
insufficiency, nutritional quality, or anxiety about a future lack of food,
affects the quality of life of urban residents in far-reaching ways. Inadequate nutrition is clearly associated
with school and work absences, fatigue, and problems with concentration. Hunger and poor nutrition are also linked to
the increased incidence and virulence of infectious diseases, many of
which--such as TB--are on the rise in US cities. Furthermore, the lack of a nutritious diet is a well-known risk
factor for any number of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and
Even when cash is available to low-income urban
residents, food is not always so readily accessible. Many supermarkets have closed or moved from the inner city due to
complex market forces related to the increasing impoverishment of their
clientele and the deterioration and depopulation of once vibrant
communities. Unfortunately, it is not
unusual for many remaining inner-city grocery and convenience stores to hike
prices, even on basic foods. “A study
in Detroit found that grocery stores near downtown and closer to lower-income
neighborhoods charged on average 10 percent more than those on the
beltway. Another study of all food
stores in three low -income zip codes in Detroit found that only four out of
five stores carried a minimal “healthy food basket” (with products based on the
food pyramid).” Low-income
consumers have less food shopping choices than middle-income consumers across
the country: they have fewer retail options, limited transportation options,
and often face higher prices at chain supermarkets.
ironically, people on limited incomes in cities are likely to pay more for
their food than wealthier shoppers in higher income neighborhoods. The range, freshness, and quality of foods
are also often compromised in inner-city groceries, thus further limiting
customers’ maximal choices for nutritious and affordable meals. As the locus of poverty shifts to urban
areas, an expanded urban agriculture program could build community food
security by improving the quantity, quality, regularity and nutritional balance
of food intake, thereby reducing hunger and improving nutrition.
How Urban Farming Builds Food Security
What does small-scale farming contribute to food
security in the United States? It
provides a more adequate income to the farmers themselves, thereby diminishing
their food insecurity. Local fresh
vegetables and fruit can have twice the vitamins and essential micro-nutrients
available from stale supermarket produce at the same price. Local and regional food is safer and more
secure than the products of industrial agriculture that typically travel long
distances. Urban agriculture produces a
range of products well matched to the food needs and demands of diverse urban
populations, thus assuring them of a more balanced diet. In addition, farming in the city conserves
natural resources and contributes to a healthy environment for living.
Urban Agriculture Builds on the Resources of Cities
your own food gives you a sort of power and it gives people dignity. You know
exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your
family and your community.”
Urban agriculture in the United States has been
enriched by the skills and technologies of immigrant populations, from Japanese
market gardeners in California to Italian urban gardeners in the Northeast. In
addition, many inner-city communities are rich in social and environmental
capital even while they are poor in economic resources. The urban agriculture movement, if it is
supported and expanded, can build on this existing, but hitherto neglected or
undeveloped expertise, social relationships, and the urban landscape
Often some of the most vulnerable people in
cities, such as the elderly and newly arrived immigrants and refugees, have
years of experience in, and knowledge about, raising and preserving food. And many neighborhoods defy commonly held
negative characterizations of urban life, exhibiting instead enduring bonds of
reciprocity and trust that tide family, friends, church members, and whole
communities over hard times. Local
leaders are experienced in the complexities of church and neighborhood
politics, and in the often frustrating relationships between low-income
communities, social service agencies, and government. Such local leaders are frequently the first to recognize the
potential contribution of urban agriculture to their community’s food security.
Growing Food in Abandoned Inner-City Areas
The regenerative effect of urban agriculture is
especially visible when vacant lots are transformed from eyesores-- weedy,
trash-ridden, dangerous gathering places--into bountiful, beautiful and safe
gardens that feed peoples’ bodies and souls.
With increasing “sprawl” into the suburbs, the last twenty years has
seen a common pattern of inner-city neglect in most cities across North
America. For example, in the United
States, “Chicago now has an estimated 70,000 vacant parcels of land. Philadelphia has 31,000, and in nearby
Trenton, New Jersey, 900 acres--18 percent of it total land area--is currently
1950 and 1990 in the U.S., abandoned lots in inner-city areas remained vacant
for between 20 and 30 years in most cities.
Failed businesses and homes were bulldozed, leaving relatively
inexpensive lots without much economic potential, except, that is, for those
lots that have become fruitful examples of urban agriculture. Even some of the 130,000 to 425,000
contaminated vacant industrial sites, or brownfields, that the General
Accounting Office has identified, may be safely converted to agricultural
purposes when properly redeveloped.
Other Unused Land in Cities
Cities also have other sources of unused land that
have been put into food production by advocates of urban agriculture. For instance, food gardens and orchards have
been developed on land surrounding institutions such as schools and hospitals
that once contained only landscaped plantings.
Portions of city parks have also been converted. While open park spaces
are traditionally regarded as recreational and aesthetic but nonproductive,
urban agriculture provides an alternative use that is both aesthetic and
productive. Public and private lands in
vulnerable areas of the city, such as on steep slopes or flood plains, have
been similarly transformed by urban agriculture endeavors using ecologically
sound growing practices.
Portions of a city’s waste stream can be
transformed from a problem into a resource for sustainable development through
urban agriculture. Urban agriculture
reuses its waste and the waste of other sectors to produce food. For instance, using compost in urban
agriculture reduces both the intake and the output in the resources stream,
resulting in fewer resources consumed and less pollution. This in turn can make
the city more ecologically balanced, and more resourceful (both literally and
sustainable future for cities would require a move towards technologies that
transform waste into useful products rather than dump it. Urban farming can contribute to this process
in several ways: by producing crops for human and livestock consumption, by
composting and by processing wastewater for direct production and irrigation…
Two hundred wastewater reclamation plants throughout the state of California
save 759,000 cubic metres of fresh
water each day, with most of the treated
effluent put into agricultural use.”
Smit, Nasr & Ratta
These features of urban life--unused land and
other readily available recycled resources, and community-based agricultural
know-how, leadership, and solidarity-- can combine in creative ways to bring
food to many tables while increasing the quality of urban life. Furthermore, urban agriculture can be an
effective arena for the development of economic development through micro- and
Rebuilding Urban and Peri-Urban Food Connections
The full scope of urban agriculture appears if the
city is seen in its relationships to the urban fringe and the surrounding
region. Urban dwellers want local
supplies of food to remain healthful, abundant, and accessible. This is far easier to do when suppliers,
distributors, and consumers have the opportunity for more direct local
relationships, as with urban and peri-urban agricultural endeavors that provide
farm-fresh foods through community-supported agriculture, farmers’ markets,
restaurants, and educational and other institutions. Consumers can monitor the
accountability of food producers, thus increasing the likelihood that food is
raised in sustainable ways that do not harm the earth and the people who grow
When consumers purchase locally-grown food, they
can vote with their pocketbooks to support horticultural practices and labor
relations that are more likely to be sustainable and just. This is
unfortunately less likely with foods brought in from outside the urban and
regional food system. In the industrial
food distribution system with its hidden subsidies for transportation and
energy, food travels on average 1400 miles to reach the consumer. In addition
to these complex transportation costs, people are increasingly concerned about
food raised and distributed through large-scale industrial systems of corporate
food production. As governmental
oversight of food production and processing decreases, public apprehension has
increased in regard to a range of food safety problems – from e-coli
contamination to the unknown consequences of foods containing genetically
Potential For Growing Food In Cities
“I have always been into gardening. I love to work. I also believe that he who controls
your breadbasket controls your destiny…I think one of the things we overlook is
that if we have a garden, or we have a farm, or we’re raising food, we need to
go a little further and express that we’re not just raising food, we’re raising
people. Everything starts with food.
Abu Talib, Garden Director
Urban agriculture is a significant economic
activity, central to the lives of tens of millions of people throughout the
world. There is ample evidence here and abroad, that the potential of urban
agriculture for food security is very real. Only now is its full potential
beginning to be tapped. The United Nations Development Program
estimates that fifteen percent of food worldwide is grown in cities and this
figure could be significantly expanded.
Certainly urban agriculture has been an important
factor for subsistence among city dwellers caught up in regional conflicts or
in the throes of economic readjustment. When transportation lines to the
countryside are disrupted or when consumers cannot afford to buy fruits and
vegetables, gardens sometimes offer urbanites the only buffer against
In Russia, food production on large-scale rural
farms fell by 40 percent since Soviet times, making the cost of food very high
on the new free market. Many Russians have survived through access to dachas
(small plots of land given to citizens), which produce 30 percent of the total
food grown in the country and 80 percent of the vegetables.
Between 1970 and 1990, the number of Moscow families engaged in food production
increased from 20 percent to 65 percent. This is one striking example of a
powerful shift toward urban agriculture worldwide, especially in response to
economic crisis. While Russia has begun once more to export grain in 2001,
small-scale urban growing remains central to people’s basic food security.
Even in less dire circumstances, urban agriculture
presents considerable benefits. For instance, currently 14% of Londoners
already grow some food in their gardens.
It is estimated that Londoners could produce up to 232,000 tons of
fruits and vegetables, or 18% of the population’s daily nutritional needs.
In the United States, a 1993 report estimated that
one third (696,000) of the 2 million farms are located within metropolitan
areas. These farms produced 35% of all
crops and livestock sales.At
a time when rural farms are going out of business at an unprecedented rate in
the U.S., the number of urban and peri-urban farms is actually increasing. In
1998, 15,700 new small farms were registered with state agriculture
departments; most of these were located within suburban areas.
People are often surprised about how much produce
can be grown on the small plots and acreages usually found in cities. Of
course, yields depend on factors such as the weather, the amount of available
land, soil conditions, seed species, the availability of a dependable water
source, and the gardener’s skill. But
even given these constraints, the use of intensive methods of growing can
maximize the efficiency of small-scale operations, as well as providing much of
a household’s yearly vegetable needs and nutritional requirements.
Urban commercial gardens using raised beds, soil
amendments, and “season extenders” such as row cover and greenhouses produce
yields that are generally 13 times more per acre than those of rural farms.
This potential is well illustrated by The
Food Project in urban and suburban Boston.
Staff and volunteers annually raise more than 120,000 pounds of fresh
vegetables on 23 acres. This produce is distributed to shareholders in their
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project and to guests in Boston shelters
and soup kitchens.
In addition to vegetables, urban agriculture includes the production of honey
(beekeeping), worms for composting and soil amendments, poultry and eggs, fish,
and meats such as rabbit, chicken and goat.
Who is Raising Food in Cities? From
Backyard Gardeners to Commercial Growers
“Gardeners from Harlem to the
South Bronx, to Wyoming, to Kansas City, we know who we are. We are forces of
nature. We are sowing seeds of life, we are giving life to people in our
communities, and that transcends everything.
What we have in common is that we’re trying to at least provide fresh
food to people who need it. With all of
our hands together, we are sowing these seeds of life. We can make a difference and we do.”
There are three broad categories of urban growers
who contribute significantly to food security and raise the bulk of food
involved in urban agriculture: backyard
gardeners, community gardeners, and
commercial growers. In actual practice, these categories overlap. For example, community gardeners may sell or
barter some of their surplus at the peak of the season, or in another case,
suburban backyard growers may decide to move into commercial activity in
Moreover, the categories may not encompass the
entire range of people involved in urban agriculture. For instance, food is also grown in urban gardens maintained in
therapeutic settings such as hospitals, senior citizen programs, drug
treatment, and long-term care facilities.
In addition, food is raised by children in school programs that
incorporate gardening in many facets of the curriculum.
These three categories refer to location and
purpose, not to who the farmers are.
Urban farmers are as diverse as the population overall. In U.S. urban agriculture, women farmers,
immigrant populations, and minorities play significant roles, as they do in
urban farming worldwide.
Urban backyard gardeners are most apt to grow vegetables, fruits and
edible herbs, often along with flowers, in plots around their homes. The term backyard gardener may be
technically a misnomer since some people even garden on their decks, or on
their apartment building balconies and rooftops. Good yields can be raised even in the simplest of
containers. Backyard gardeners are not only growing plant produce to eat, but
also they keep bees for honey and raise fish and small animals at their homes.
In the neighborhood of Pilsen, the primary entry point for Mexican immigrants
into Chicago, six women associated with Heifer
International maintain hydroponic aquaculture systems built of recycled
materials in their apartments. These
systems provide up to 80 pounds of protein per family per year.
As many as one quarter of urban households in the
United States have gardens. Many of
these urban backyard gardeners are
hobbyists who enjoy raising their own food to supplement their diets with
seasonal harvests. Surpluses become
preserved products and gifts for friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Cultivating hard-to-grow crops is a frequent
incentive to garden. One of the
contributors to this report has grown – in addition to the usual tomatoes –
figs, grape leaves, and a range of Mediterranean herbs and vegetables.
In much of North America, while subsistence is not
the immediate goal of such gardeners, in many cases the harvest from a backyard
garden has stretched the food budgets of low-income families and their network
of relatives and friends. There are
indications that many more families would like to garden for this very
reason. For instance, in Omaha NE two
thirds of the participants in an inner-city extension nutrition education
program reported recently that they ran out of groceries by the end of each
month. 80 percent of these respondents reported that they would like a garden
where they could grow fresh produce.
In Portland OR, Dan Barker reports that it is
difficult to keep up with the numbers of families waiting for the literal
delivery of a raised bed garden to their backyards. Since its beginning in 1984, The
Home Gardening Project has installed more than 1400 household gardens in
disadvantaged neighborhoods of downtown Portland. New gardeners receive, free
of charge, two or three 5’ x 8’ soil frames filled with organic soil. In addition, they are given seeds, starts,
compost, a trellis, tomato cages, a cookbook, and at least two years of ongoing
gardening advice. This program brings all that a low-income family might
need--the soil, amendments, wood frame, seeds, and written guidelines for
intensive growing--and constructs the garden on site. Bringing in fresh soil without disturbing the existing terrain
obviates most concerns about soil quality, fertility, and toxicity.
B. The term, community gardeners refers typically
to people who grow their produce on lots that have been divided into smaller
plots of land for each household’s use.
These lots may be owned by the municipality, an institution, a community
group, a land trust, or some other entity.
Generally, each gardener keeps the production for himself or herself,
for friends and family. Sometimes,
community gardeners will all share the garden lot and the food that is produced
there, or they will grow the food as a source of income. And sometimes, although more rarely, food is
raised expressly to give away. This is
the case with the community garden project, Field
of Dreams near Milwaukee Wisconsin.
There, volunteers have raised more than 45 tons of food (or 305,000 vegetable helpings) for local
food pantries and soup kitchens.
Community Gardening Association estimates that there are more than 6,000
community gardens in thirty-eight U.S. cities, including gardens on otherwise
vacant lots and on land in public housing projects. Of
these, more than 30 percent, or 1853 community gardens, were started after
1991, reflecting the growing trend of interest in this model of community
development that now encompasses some hundreds of thousands of gardeners.
Depending on the size of the lot, there may be
only a few families involved in a community garden. This is the case with the three families from Central America who
garden in one of the pockets of community gardens associated in East Palo Alto,
CA. On the other hand, some community
gardens are very large and involve many gardeners. For instance, one community garden on county-owned land in
Milwaukee accommodates more than 350 families, most of whom are low-income and
a third of whom are Hmong immigrants from Southeast Asia.
2,800 families (12,000 persons) are distributed among 500 community gardens in
As with backyard gardeners, most community gardeners expect only to supplement
their food budgets. Nevertheless food
budget savings can be significant. For
instance, in the Milwaukee example above nearly half the community gardeners
said they saved between $101 and $300 with the food they raised in their garden
plots. In the Philadelphia case,
community gardeners reported an annual savings of $700 per family.
Regardless of the amount of economic reward,
community gardens provide access to significantly more vegetables (and often
more nutritious ones) than many families would ordinarily get in their
diets. In a study of 144 community
gardeners with the Philadelphia Urban
Gardening Project, for example, researchers found that “Gardeners ate 6 out
of 14 vegetable categories significantly more frequently, and milk products, citrus,
sweet foods, and drinks less frequently” than non-gardeners.
Nevertheless, however important community gardens
are, they comprise only a small percentage of urban farms. Of the ten million
vegetable growers in the United States, only 300-400,000 are in community
gardens, between three and four percent.
The predominant form of urban farming comprises part-time, small-scale
farmers who farm commercially or semi-commercially. This is the third and major
category of urban growers.
Agriculture Commercial Growers grow food for sale.
Increasing numbers of individuals and organizations are exploring the
opportunities offered by producing food in and around cities for market.
Repeated agricultural censuses show that U.S. small farms, meaning those less
than ten acres, are concentrated in urban counties, except in the Rocky
Mountain States. Recent censuses
indicate that the number is increasing as urbanization spreads. The suburbanization of cities – and more
specifically the loss in density in most cases – facilitates the urban and
peri-urban family farm. A survey by the National
Gardening Association finds that there are more than ten million vegetable
producers in the United States, with three out of five in urban census
tracts. Just as strikingly, commercial
urban agriculture produces 40 percent of the total American farm product on ten
percent of the agricultural land.
These entrepreneurs are responding to, among other
trends, the growing desire of urbanites to buy fresh, preferably organically-grown,
and nutritious produce grown close to their homes. More and more urban
consumers are also looking for locally produced value-added food products, such
as salsa and jams.
The growing urban market is also created by the greater ethnic mix of city
populations, the increasing abandonment of inner-city areas by large
supermarket chains, the phenomenon of urban sprawl, and the fact that Americans
are eating much more in restaurants. Consumers are also turning increasingly
to local and regional foods, whether in Massachusetts or Oahu.
It is important to emphasize that in the United States - and particularly in
its urbanized areas - many a farmer tills the soil and husbands his or her
animals, poultry or fish on a part-time basis. In villages and towns, at
the fringes of cities and within metropolitan areas (where eight out of ten
Americans live), these part-time, small-scale farmers produce for the local
market demand first, and secondly for the national market, on the weekend,
after a day's work in a non-farm job, and often before dawn.
This kind of part-time farming, while risky, helps families to cover their
needs. Items as varied as grass-fed lamb, blooming chrysanthemums,
asparagus, culinary herbs, salad greens and ducks, delivered fresh at peak
market demand, can cover a family's irregular costs. Part-time urban
farming can be reflected in contrasting divisions of household labor. There are
households where all active members are active farmers. In other cases, one
member of the household is a full-time farmer, with other family members
helping occasionally or seasonally. In other cases, none are full-time
farmers. Part-time farming in urban areas is considerably more common
than the census reports, since many small-scale farmers, who have another job
in the family, do not register as a farm.
Typically, for-profit urban farmers are practical, high-energy individuals
willing to take advantage of the significantly higher margin the urban farmer
can sell to retail, over against the rural farmer. The successful urban
farmer must have marketing savvy, and finding niches not served by the
corporate food system. Successful urban farmers can help to address some
of the problems with access to food in urban communities. For example,
urban agriculture entrepreneurs frequently sell their products at local
farmers' markets. According to the USDA, "the number of farmers
markets has increased almost 50 percent since 1994.”
These markets can be a boon to community food security, especially when they
are located in low-income urban neighborhoods. This is the case
with the Richmond, CA Certified Farmer's
Market whose multiethnic vendors cater to a range of ethnic specialties
such as fresh black-eyed peas.
Urban commercial growers also sell their produce and products wholesale to groceries and
high-end restaurants, using their longer growing season to meet demand. In Philadelphia, one such farmer, Mary
Corboy, is farming one block in an abandoned section of town for sale
exclusively to inner-city restaurants, working closely with the chefs to
determine the type of lettuce to plant. Far more common, however, is commercial
peri-urban cultivation in the belt of farmland that rings most metropolitan
addition, the next few years may see the expansion of community supported
agriculture (CSA) farms onto urban sites.
Several CSA’s have responded directly to food insecurity issues with
experiments in making their shares available to low-income households through
such means as outside subsidies. Other
urban markets for entrepreneurs are created with initiatives like the USDA Small Farms/School Meals programs that,
with sufficient investment and national replication, could eventually reach
unmet nutritional needs of schoolchildren.
Similar farm-to-institution programs provide direct marketing
opportunities for entrepreneurs to other institutional consumers such as
hospitals and prisons. Some commercial growers have opened their
fields to gleaning programs after they have harvested their crop for market;
these programs provide low-income urban families with opportunities to pick
what remains for their own use, increasing local food security.
Many inner-city urban agriculture projects require
some form of subsidy-grants or non-profit status to be commercially viable, at
least in their initial stages. Yet
these same projects have multiple social benefits in terms of job training and
community outreach. It is common, for example, to find an urban farming operation
where inner-city youth learn a range of job skills that they can later apply
elsewhere. The Los Angeles, CA Food From the Hood program is a company
that is owned and managed by students from Crenshaw High School. Their line of salad dressings is sold to
2,000 stores nationwide, and the company has “spawned ‘sister’ programs in
Ithaca, NY and in Chicago, IL.”
The student-owners of Food from the Hood
have earned college scholarships generated from company profits.
Although the number of commercial agriculture
operations inside city limits is lower than those in the urban fringe,
important lessons have been learned from inner-city farms. One significant lesson is that trying to
maximize earned revenues while maintaining a strong social agenda presents
significant challenges, since each objective alone demands energy, focus, and
creativity. Other lessons from urban
agriculture entrepreneurs are strongly positive, especially in the area of
horticultural innovations such as the use of season extenders (e.g. row cover,
cold frames, etc.), raised bed intensive gardening, and aquaculture.
International’s Urban Agriculture Programs in the U.S.
The potential contribution of urban livestock to
food security in North America has been supported by the Heifer International (a
56-year old international development organization). Since 1996, this organization has provided assistance to nine
community groups in Chicago IL and Milwaukee WI who are raising a variety of
livestock for food and sale. One such
program is located on Chicago’s South Side at the Robert Taylor Homes, the
largest public housing project in the United States, with more than 20,000
residents on over 92 acres. In the midst of this gang-dominated environment, a
resident-run youth group has constructed a vermiculture and aquaculture system
in the basement of one of the Robert Taylor Homes high-rises where they
currently care for more than 100 pounds of worms and two barrels of tilapia
fish. In the planting season worm castings
are used as a soil additive in their market garden and packaged for sale to
city gardeners. Every seven months fish
are harvested and eaten by the participating youths’ families. In another site, youth and adults have
joined together to reclaim for food production an abandoned lot and illegal
dumping ground. There, ducks are integrated into the operation for pest and
weed control. They also supply eggs to participating families.
a community is faced with the challenge of cleaning up an abandoned lot in
their neighborhood, fighting a local polluter or creating economic
opportunities in their downtown area, community organizing is a means by which
those affected by an issue are able to participate in the creation of
Growing Communities Curriculum
In order to meet their commitment to food
security, urban agriculture growers and their supporters have had to respond
creatively to a number of complex challenges. This section reviews some of the
main challenges that urban agricultural activities encounter, and for each of
these challenges, provides some of the responses that have helped counter them.
Agriculture Knowledge and Skills
Urban growers may lack the knowledge and skills in
production, processing and marketing
that bring about successful yields.
Resources to solve these problems include:
areas have Extension services in place
A number of
non-profit urban agriculture projects in cities offer public
educational series and on-site demonstrations
The USDA Community
Gardening Coordinator in each state may provide the impetus
for supporting urban-based outreach curricula
activities for trainers have focused on urban agriculture
have featured columns and shows that highlight information
about horticultural tips and small business practices
programs at all levels--from pre-school to university - have
successfully provided youth with training opportunities
Growing and Marketing
Low-income families spend one-third and more of
their income on food. Good-quality
fresh food with high levels of vitamins and protein is worth subsidizing. Urban agriculture produce in general costs
the same as imported or rural produce, but the challenge is to make sure that
this food is made accessible to low-income consumers. Some mechanisms for this include:
The USDA food
stamp benefits, including the WIC Farmers’ Markets Nutrition
Program and the Seniors Farmers’ Markets Nutrition Program,
have expanded consumers’ purchasing power.
community supported agriculture (CSA) programs are focusing
specifically on lower-income customer’s needs
markets have fostering the production of staple crops such
as beans and kale to complement the emerging trend of high-end,
high-return market gardening by part-time entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs and community and backyard gardeners
have start-up costs that can be an obstacle to folks on limited incomes. Responses to this problem include:
including donations of surplus tools, offer gardeners the
option of borrowing tools or renting them for a low fee.
government “seed” grants provide much-needed funding for individuals
Banks and government-funded
redevelopment plans have provided micro-credit to growers.
businesses, nurseries, and seed companies donate their wares.
offered by churches, schools, and other organizations provide
access for food preservation and small-scale value-added production
Crop or harvest
loans, crop insurance, liability insurance, and equipment
loans can assist the beginning urban farmer.
Many involved in urban agriculture do not own the
land they use to grow food. Without
title or three to five year leases, they risk losing their investment when the
land is taken for other purposes.
Creative solutions to this problem include the following:
successfully secure urban and peri-urban land parcels for
easements are used to delineate environmentally vulnerable
lands that then can be used for agriculture
develop inventories of surplus properties that lead to the
inclusion of agriculture in subsequent plans for the land.
Many urban growers
have been able to write medium-to-longer-term leases allowing
them to plan for the future
Many forms of
urban agriculture are mobile and/or require little investment,
and thus are well suited to shorter-term or more uncertain
Some urban agriculture
sites are maintained under usufruct arrangements. This means
that growers have the legal right to use public or private
land as long as they maintain it well.
In many climates, food production in cities is
seasonal and thus not dependable as a year-round source of food security. Many urban residents have limited knowledge
and access to facilities for preserving foods that they grow. Creative
are innovators in the use of season extenders such as greenhouses,
hoop houses, cold frames, etc.
and parts of buildings (e.g. basements) have been converted
for indoor activities: mushroom
and worm production, fish tanks, sprouts, etc.
above, community kitchens offer space for canning and other
other urban agriculture educators, and the media can focus
on how to preserve food, often featuring elderly community
members with expertise in this valuable information.
Growers often find it difficult to market their
locally-grown foods to groceries, restaurants, and institutions because of
wholesale distributers’ monopolies.
Responses to this challenge include the following:
clubs and cooperatives are popular ways that allow consumers
to pool their orders to take advantage of wholesale prices
and preferences for local food producers.
campaigns fostered by business councils and government development
agencies support local food production enterprises.
such as the “slow food” movement are influencing consumer
choices that favor foods prepared with care by locally-owned
restaurants using locally-raised produce.
and non-profit organizations can provide market growers with
data about consumer preferences, market niches, etc.
Urban farming, provided it produces, stores and
distributes food in an ecologically sound and sustainable manner, can supply
much more healthful food than is offered by industrial agriculture and
supermarket chains. Fresh fruits and
vegetables, free-range poultry, and grass-fed lamb are a source of health for
urban consumers, and also respond to concerns regarding excessive use of
antibiotics for animals in factory farms, and the inhumane treatment of animals
in the dominant food system. However,
there are particular health challenges connected to farming in the city. For example, urban soils can be contaminated
with heavy metals such as lead. Measures to counteract this include the
with imported clean soil and compost have been successfully
placed on top of questionable soils, enabling farmers to produce
initiatives have raised public awareness of the problem and
removed polluted soils.
can reduce air-borne exposure to questionable soils in some
testing and subsidies have enabled low-income gardeners to
know their level of risk and seek appropriate solutions.
(using plants to take up metals from the soil) has great potential
to assist with lead abatement.
methods have been used in urban agriculture to avoid contact
with the soil and air by providing alternative production
sites in contaminated areas (e.g. greenhouses, indoor production,
hydroponic growing mediums, etc.)
Agriculture and the Environment
By incorporating the principles of low-impact development,
smart growth, and sustainable urbanization, urban agriculture can contribute to
maintaining open space and biodiversity within the urban fabric. A city that promotes urban agriculture can
have green space that pays taxes rather than costing taxpayers money. Along with these powerful environmental
benefits, there are environmental concerns related to growing food in
cities. One of these concerns is that
there is little regulation about the use of pesticides used in urban
agriculture that may affect food safety.
Measures to overcome this problem include:
pesticide use led by public health professionals, government
officials, and the public have led to phasing out the use
of some pesticides such as diazinon.
for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has contributed to public
awareness of non-chemical and organic alternatives to dangerous
interest in food safety and ecology has promoted the use of
appropriate technologies and approaches such as permaculture.
can develop regional composting facilities to avert wastes
landfills: work on this is being done in the Austin, Texas area.
Although the risk has not proved great, there
continues to be concern about vandalism and crime in urban gardens. In response to this:
Urban growers have
cultivated good relationships with neighbors and law enforcement, finding that
the best protection for their crops is a “human fence.”
The presence of
weekend and part-time urban gardeners can even deter crime, providing “eyes on
Caution and common
sense have proved to be invaluable resources, leading to such practices as
fencing the urban garden, locking tools in a toolshed, cleaning up debris and
other unsightly spaces in the garden, planting less popular crops closest to
sidewalks, and choosing garden sites that offer greater protection for crops
Policy Changes to Support Urban Agriculture
“Annex Organics breaks every rule of
conventional farming. The cultivated
area is miniscule compared to any country farm. The inputs required are almost as minimal. They have no refrigerator
and no delivery truck. Yet here on an
industrial rooftop, previously not considered worthy of anything, there’s a
thriving business, run by youth without
any major start-up costs or bank debts.
And it can spread. On urban
industrial rooftops all over North America there are jobs to be had – new,
challenging, cutting-edge jobs that can pay a fair wage. ‘In August, at harvest
time, this whole roof is a sea of green…The bees are buzzing about, the
tomatoes are ripe and beautiful…That, to me, says it all.’”
Real Food For A Change
Policymaking takes place at many levels,
including: the community, foundation board rooms, city councils, state
legislatures, business networks, professional associations, and the federal
government. Food policy councils are
emerging in cities and states to coordinate policy initiatives, research,
education, and events that build community food security, including through
urban agriculture. In the following section, policymakers are invited to
support these basic concerns of urban agriculture and translate them into
concrete policy proposals. This outline
can serve as a guide for policymakers who seek to offer cities – and especially
their urban core – greater food security and the benefits of urban
Support infrastructure for increased urban food
production, processing, and marketing
Þ Support significant community-based infrastructure
for urban growers such as tool banks with food growing equipment and supplies,
community kitchens and other shared processing facilities, farmers’ markets,
community supported agriculture ventures, funding streams, technical service providers,
and urban extension agents.
Þ encourage farm-to-institution approaches for
direct marketing of local products that offer healthy food choices to schools
(including Head Start), hospitals,
prisons, and businesses, while creating economic opportunities for urban
growers and related industries.
Þ Expand the WIC
Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program and the Seniors Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program so that all states
provide support for buying fresh produce at farmers’ markets
Þ Link training and welfare-to-work work programs
for unemployed people to opportunities in urban food-related businesses as a
source of living wage jobs.
Extend to urban growers appropriate farm-related
services and opportunities.
Þ Government, banks, land-grant universities, and
private businesses need to tailor their offerings so that urban growers as well
as rural farmers also have access to such benefits as start-up capital, credit,
crop insurance, horticultural and financial advice, soil testing, markets,
subsidies, tools, and inputs such as seeds and soil amendments.
Þ While the needs of urban farmers are in certain
cases similar to those of rural farmers, in other cases they are different and
require special services. Policymakers
can work with representatives of community gardening and urban farming
organizations, as well as food policy councils, to meet these needs (see above,
V. Challenges Facing Urban Agriculture.)
Support initiatives that convert idle and
under-used urban lands and other resources for raising food, and preserve farms
on the urban fringe.
Þ Encourage land tenure schemes such as land trusts,
leases, eminent domain, and allied policy initiatives. Securing long-term commitment for community
gardens, entrepreneurial farms, and other urban agriculture ventures is imperative
to ensure the horticultural, social, and economic value of the endeavor.
Þ Incorporate urban agriculture in city land use
plans as a desirable civic activity that improves the quality of urban life,
food security, neighborhood safety and environmental stewardship. Zoning ordinances need to enable rather than
prohibit the development of appropriate agriculture in residential, industrial,
business, and open space zones.
Þ Amend building codes so that they reflect the
actual structural contingencies of rooftop gardening.
Þ Convert some of the public lands in urban parks,
and around municipal buildings, schools, public housing, hospitals, etc., to
food production with plantings of fruit trees, edible landscaping, and
Þ Provide support and access to public waterways for
raising fish in cities (aquaculture) as an inexpensive high-protein food.
Þ Enhance municipal support for composting solid
waste with door-to-door collection of organic material, on-site composting
facilities in urban agriculture projects, public education programs and
Promote and develop urban food growing training
Þ Organize a web of training activities in a variety
of settings, including schools, colleges, health care facilities, and
continuing education programs in order to improve the knowledge of current
growers and motivate potential new growers.
Þ Offer school-based programs that integrate
nutrition and gardening in order to raise awareness about the connection
between healthy food choices and locally-grown fresh produce.
Þ Two key concepts to promote are Primary
Agriculture Education for all, and Secondary Food System Assessment, including
mapping of the food system.
Sponsor and publicize research on the
horticultural, social, and economic factors that contribute to successful urban
ÞFund research on such basic topics as the most
appropriate crops to grow in urban areas; community-based leadership
development for urban agriculture and community food security; the economics of
financial incentives to growers and consumers; urban soil remediation
demonstrations; policies to expand urban agriculture within low-income
communities and utilize the food-growing skills of immigrants and minorities;
develop campaigns to utilize local and regional food; expand production and markets for ethnic foods; publicize the
health benefits and health care savings from increased vegetable consumption by
Realizing the Potential of Urban Agriculture
Constraints on urban agriculture have prevented
farmers and consumers from realizing its full potential in the United States.
The policies and actions outlined above, as well as others, will help to
promote urban agriculture as a powerful instrument for building community food security
and increasing economic development in U.S. cities. Urban agriculture worldwide shows us best practices and policy
changes that can help us in the United States, as well as problems and
difficulties we can learn from.
This guide is a tool for community organizations and food security networks to
use in their work with local, state and regional governments, as well as with
federal agencies, to expand urban agriculture in the United States, and develop
a more just and sustainable food system.
and References for Further Study and Action
Urban Agriculture Resources
National Gardening Association, (NGA)
Attn.: T. Schulz
Among other programs, NGA has a grants program for
American Community Gardening Association (ACGA)
100 20th St. N
Philadelphia, PA 19103
Attn.: Sally McCabe
web site: www.communitygarden.org
ACGA has a fantastic leadership development program,
From the Roots Up; an annual
conference (New York City in 2002); a guidebook on starting community gardens;
and an always interesting annual newsletter, Community Greening Review.
8209 Fenton Street, Suite 4
Attn.: Jac Smit
TUAN will be publishing a revised edition of its
groundbreaking study, Urban Agriculture:
Food, Jobs, and Sustainable Cities, to be released in 2002, and including
more extensive information on urban agriculture in the U.S.
801-318 Homer Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 2V3
Attn.: Mike Levenston
City Farmer’s website www.cityfarmer.org is a veritable
plethora of information on urban agriculture worldwide.
The Community Food Security Coalition
3830 SE Division St
Portland, OR 97202
Phone: (503) 954-2970
Attn: Andy Fisher
The CFSC has comprehensive programs and
publications on community food security.
A. Urban Agriculture and
Community Food Security
Abi-Nader, Jeanette, Dunnigan, Kendall, Markley,
Kristen. 2001. Growing Communities
Curriculum: Community Building and Organizational Development through Community
Gardening. American Community Gardening Association. From the Roots Up
(A comprehensive guide to creating and
strengthening community garden organizations.)
Ableman, Michael. Agriculture’s Next Frontier: How urban farms could feed the world.
Utne Reader. November-December 2000.
Adeyemi, Abiola et al. 1997. Urban Agriculture: An Abbreviated List of References and Resource Guide. Beltsville, MD: USDA, ARS, National
Berman, Laura, 1997. How Does Our Garden Grow? A Guide to Community Garden Success.
Toronto: FoodShare Metro Toronto. (contact to order: phone: 416-392-6653,
Brown, K. Public Health Implications of Urban
Agriculture. Journal of Public
Health Policy. 21(1): 20-39. 2000.
Feenstra, Gail et al. Entrepreneurial Community Gardens: Growing Food, Skills, Jobs and
Communities. 1999. University of California Agriculture and Natural
Resources Publication 21587. (Assesses
the ways in which entrepreneurial or market gardens enhance economic
development in their local communities.)
Hot Peppers and Parking Lot Peaches: Evaluating Farmer’s Markets In Low Income
Communities. Community Food
Security Coalition. 1999.
Frojmovic, Michel. 1996. Urban Agriculture in Canada: A Survey of Municipal Initiatives in
Canada and Abroad. Cities Feeding People Series, Report 16. Ottawa, Canada:
Hynes, Patricia H. A Patch of Eden. 1996. America’s Inner-City Gardeners. Vermont:
Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
Joseph, Hugh, Mark Winne, and Andy Fisher. 2000.
Community Food Security A Guide to
Concept, Design and Implementation.
Community Food Security Coalition
Kaufman, Jerry and Martin Bailkey. July 2000. Farming Inside Cities: Entrepreneurial Urban
Agriculture in the United States. A research study funded by the Lincoln
Institute of Land Policy, Cambridge, MA. (Studies 70 entrepreneurial urban
agriculture projects in U.S. cities, explore obstacles, discusses ways to
Kiefer, Joseph & Kemple, Martin. 1998. Digging Deeper: Integrating Youth Gardens
Into Schools and Communities. Montpelier, VT. Common Roots Press/Food Works
- in partnership with the American Community Gardening Association. (A beautifully illustrated resource for
teachers, kids and community people.)
Koc, Mustafa et al. 1999. For Hunger Proof Cities. Sustainable Urban Food Systems. Ottawa,
Canada: International Development Research Center. (The first book to fully
examine food security from an urban perspective.)
Nelson, Toni. Urban
Agriculture: Closing the Nutrient Loop, in WorldWatch, Vol. 9, No. 6,
Smit, Jac, Ratta, Annu, and Nasr, Joe. 1996. Urban Agriculture. Food, Jobs and
Sustainable Cities. New York: United Nations Development Program
(A comprehensive study of urban agriculture
Millennium Free From Hunger. U.S.
National Progress Report on Implementation of the US Action Plan on Food
Security and World Food Summit Commitments. 2000.
Valen, Gary L. 2001. Local Food Project: A How-To Manual. The Humane Society of the
United States (Available via phone: 202-452-1100, web site: www.hsus.org)
(An effective guide to starting your own food
project, including urban growing.)
2000. The Feasibility of Urban Agriculture with Recommendations for
Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: The Pennsylvania Horticultural
Sowing Seeds of Hope. Organic Gardening. January/February 2000.
B. Intensive Horticulture Strategies
Jeavons, John. 1995. How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops
Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Berkeley,
CA: Ten Speed Press. A book brought to you by Ecology Action (Willits, CA,
phone: 707-459-6410, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
(A classic on biointensive farming.)
Olkowski, Helga and William. The
City People’s Book of Raising Food.
Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press Inc. 1975.
Square Foot Gardening. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. 1981.
Cohen, Alison Meares. Reflections on Three Years
of Urban Agriculture: HPI's Chicago Urban Program. August 23, 2000. Heifer International. Internal paper.
Meares, Alison. “Cows in the City or Urban Agriculture”, In The Exchange, No. 86,
on farm animals and sustainable agriculture:
Little Rock, AR 72203/USA
The Humane Society of the United States
2100 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037
Web site: www.hsus.org
III. Federal Funding Sources for Urban Agriculture
and Food Security Projects
USDA Community Food Projects Program (CFP) offers competitive grants for
meeting the food needs of low-income communities with locally grown food.
following have also supported urban agriculture as a response to community food
Development Block Grants (CDBG)
Justice, Education, & Innovative Communities grant
of Labor/Job Training Partnership Act
Food and Nutritional Education Program and SARE grants
of HHS/Community Food and Nutrition grants
and Vista Volunteers
of Justice/Weed & Seed program
Dept. of Education and the National Science Foundation have provided funds for
VIII. Note on Authors
Katherine Houston Brown is
founder of City Sprouts, an inner-city garden and
food security project in Omaha, Nebraska.
Martin Bailkey teaches at the
department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Wisconsin,
Alison Meares-Cohen is Northeast
Program Manager of Heifer International.
Jac Smit and Joe Nasr direct The
Urban Agriculture Network in Washington, DC.
Terri Buchanan served as
executive director of The Sustainable Food Center, Austin, TX (recently merged
with Austin Community Gardens).
Peter Mann is international
coordinator for WHY (World Hunger Year).