Urban Farms Turn Food Deserts Into Green Spaces
JaQuan was skeptical at first. Four years ago, the 14-year-old saw the Common Good City Farm open next to his housing project in northwest Washington, D.C., and didn’t quite know what to make of it. He stopped by to investigate and was drawn in by a small group of urban farmers who asked if he would like to pitch in with some painting and planting tasks. It turned out that JaQuan enjoyed the work, and a short while later he became a paid summer intern at Common Good.
JaQuan continued in that role, balancing his job with academics. He also began teaching farming skills to younger kids. Now 18, he just graduated high school and “can pretty much run the show here,” says Melissa Miller, the farm’s manager.
Over the past decade, nonprofit urban farms such as Common Good have been making a big impact in “food deserts” — stretches of cities that don’t have good access to fresh produce and grocery stores. The farms seek to provide affordable, accessible whole foods to communities that otherwise can’t get them.Common Good grows about 5,000 pounds of food per year and disperses it via a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that prices on a sliding-income basis. It also accepts government vouchers such as WIC, EBT, and Produce Plus and has a Green Tomorrows program in which income-qualifying individuals receive six to 12 pounds of food for two hours of work.
The organization also teaches locals how to grow their own food. “We’ve found that if you have access without education, it’s kind of worthless,” says Miller.
Once a month, Common Good hosts free seed-to-table workshops that instruct on everything from beekeeping to growing medicinal herbs to best practices for cooking whole foods. An afterschool program called Learning for Environment, Agriculture, and Food (LEAF) teaches kids job skills, and a City Farmer program offers volunteers classes and discounts on farm produce if they donate three hours of their time.
“We’re trying to educate not only the smallest of the farmers but also adults as well,” says Miller.
Connecting with the Community
Depending on someone like JaQuan to walk into an urban farm takes a bit of luck. The challenge for urban farm leaders is figuring out how to consistently connect with more locals.
One nonprofit in Buffalo, New York, has come up with a creative solution to draw more people to urban farms: art.
“We thought it would be interesting to have well-known artists do sculptures that the farmers use to support their agricultural activities,” says David Lage, founder of Artfarms. “Locals would come to see the art, and if more people come, we’d be able to increase economic activity there.”
Artfarms focuses on the east side of Buffalo, another food desert that has long tracks of vacant land. Over the past few years, groups such as the Michigan Riley Farm and Farmer Pirates Cooperative have been turning those empty spots into productive areas by growing food there. Now it was time to connect those organizations to the long-standing community.
Last May, Artfarms unveiled its first installation, on the Michigan Riley site. It’s a sculpture by artist Michael Beitz — a 32-foot-long picnic table in the shape of a giant tree.
“It’s the perfect metaphor for Artfarms’ mission,” says Sarah Maurer, the project coordinator for the organization. “It’s artistic and kind of whimsical but also functional for the farmers because it provides a place for them to sort and sell their produce. And it’s a space where the community can gather, engage with farmers, and eat right there on the sculpture.”
Like Common Good, Artfarms has an educational component too, with free art classes and a summer lunch program that works in conjunction with the Buffalo Public School system.
“The Michigan Riley farm has become a hub of positive activity in the neighborhood whereas two years ago if you had visited that corner, you would’ve seen an empty lot where people threw their garbage,” says Maurer. “It’s been really rewarding to see it unfold.”
The next step is continuing to make the local community feel comfortable with farmers “setting up crop” in their neighborhood. Maurer has seen long-term residents of East Buffalo gradually accept the urban farms. “At first there was a bit of pushback or uncertainty in terms of locals not knowing whether these gardens would be maintained,” she says. “But now they’ve seen that the farmers are committed to these spaces for the long haul.”
“What’s really special is that several of the farmers have moved into the neighborhoods that they’re working in,” Maurer adds. “They’re not all living in North Buffalo or the west side and then driving over to the east side to do their farming. They’re investing in the neighborhood, buying houses and fixing them up. It starts with the farms, but it has a bigger impact that keeps rippling outward.”
Preparing for an Urban Future
There is also a greater purpose to urban farming, one that envelops sociological changes that are coming our way. According to the United Nations, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, and the number is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. There is a growing urgency to build urban infrastructures that allow large numbers of people to access food easily.
Urban farms are a good start, as they aim to both develop unused land and teach local residents how to be self-sufficient. For areas such as Buffalo and D.C., it’s also about forging a closer connection between people, the neighborhood, and the food they consume — something that can be passed along from generation to generation.
“The long-term goal is to create a patchwork of lots that have transitioned from vacancy to hubs of positive activity,” says Maurer. “The east side of Buffalo is massive, and each neighborhood is unique, so we’re hoping we can get to a point where we’ve created this network of different places that reflect the surrounding neighborhoods and are embraced by the community.”
“We don’t have to worry about feeding everyone in the world, but we do feed our community really well,” adds Miller. “That’s where urban farming is going — feeding the very local population. That’s all it really needs to do.”