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  May/June 1997 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Cultivating Our Cities

"Tend your garden," said Voltaire--even if you live downtown.

by Paul Rauber

Now that the 20th century is on its way out, maybe us cityfolk can get back to normal. For urban dwellers prior to this screwy century, "normal" meant that most of our food was raised either in town or a donkey's journey away.

Plans for medieval European cities show fields both within and without the fortified walls (no reason to give up cabbage just because the Huns are besieging you). In what is now Mexico City, the proto-hydroponic chinampas garden system fed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán. And one-sixth of 19th-century Paris was devoted to marais, intensive urban gardens fueled by manure from the city's thousands of working horses, which produced greens, vegetables, and fruit the year around.

But with the advent of internal combustion, refrigerated trucks, and modern sanitation systems, the circle was broken. Urban farms were built over or fell into desuetude, and urban dwellers became increasingly alienated from the land, to the point where most have no idea how their food is produced or where it comes from beyond the freezer case.

In the past 20 years, the pendulum has started to swing back. Community gardens are springing up in abandoned lots, "gleaning" programs harvest the fruit from urban trees for community food pantries, and labor-intensive urban organic farms are providing healthful produce along with badly needed jobs.

In South Central Los Angeles, the "hip-hop entrepreneurs" of Food From the 'Hood turned a weed-infested quarter-acre lot at Crenshaw High School into a thriving organic garden, the profits from which go to a college fund for the young gardeners. San Francisco's Fresh Start Farms employs homeless families raising vegetables for some of the city's finer restaurants, while at the San Francisco County Jail's Garden Project, prisoners grow food for local soup kitchens, graduating when they complete their sentences to an intensive market garden that serves restaurants and farmers' markets. The Washington, D.C.­based From the Ground Up farms a piece of land a half hour from the city center, selling part of its harvest to middle-income people through a "community supported agriculture" (CSA) program and using the proceeds to subsidize food distribution to lower-income neighbors.

One of the reasons for this efflorescence is the harsh nature of the modern food-delivery system itself. In many inner-city areas, neighborhood supermarkets are pulling up stakes, leaving entire communities dependent on high-priced convenience stores. In this situation, urban agriculture fills the niche abandoned by the corporate food giants. Groups concerned with the very basic problem of food access founded the Community Food Security Coalition, which performed the minor miracle of carving out a $16- million portion of last year's Farm Bill for urban agriculture projects. "The Democrats could see that it benefited their constituency," says Coalition director Andy Fisher, "and the Republicans liked the emphasis on self-reliance. The amount is really a pittance, but it's a start."

Urban agriculture faces many impediments. Planning departments tend to be suspicious, neighbors don't like the smell of manure, and vacant lots have to be thoroughly tested for toxic substances. City farmers outside the United States have a much easier time of it, and the field is flourishing. Hong Kong, for example, the most densely populated city in the world, produces two-thirds of its own poultry and nearly half its vegetables.

In Brazil, slum dwellers raise iguana and guinea pigs to supplement protein-poor diets. In Moscow, 65 percent of all families engage in some kind of food production, while a women's co-op in a poor neighborhood in Bogotá uses modern hydroponic techniques to raise vegetables to sell to supermarkets, providing their families with as much as three times their husbands' salaries.

Urban farmers in the United States do enjoy some advantages over their country cousins. "Cities are waste-producing machines," says Jac Smit, head of the Urban Agriculture Network. "Urban farmers have much more ready access to organic waste. They typically grow multi-crops rather than mono-crops, so the need for pesticides just doesn't occur. And while the rural farmer often has no idea of the market [for fruits and vegetables], the urban producer talks to shoppers and restaurateurs on a weekly basis. Food From the 'Hood works because the people who grow the food are also there selling it."

Urban farmers are well situated to profit from shifts in consumer tastes. The increasing demand for fresh, organic produce is easy to meet from gardens around the corner, but antithetical to the industrial food system. Major supermarkets have designed themselves around produce that can be grown in huge quantity, shipped long distances, held on the shelf for ages, and consequently sold for a song, and are poorly equipped to do anything else. Springing up to meet consumer demand, then, is a literally grassroots network that brings with it a revolution in food retailing: instead of mega-markets, farmers' markets; instead of microwavable frozen packages, food that tastes as good as it did in our grandparents' day.

"It's a lot of micro-responses to problems in the food system," says Claire Cummings, an activist attorney and food policy consultant. "It's about taking back the ability to produce food for ourselves. At the grocery store, you not only don't connect to the food system, but your money goes out of the region." People are looking for a sense of community, she says, and they find it at the farmers' market or in their local community garden.

For an overview with lots of case studies, particularly in the Third World, see Urban Agriculture: Food, Jobs, and Sustainable Cities, published by the United Nations Development Program, 1996. Jac Smit, one of the report's authors, heads the Urban Agriculture Network, 1711 Lamont St., N.W., Washington, DC 20020; (202) 483-8130; e-mail The Community Food Security Coalition publishes a newsletter and provides information about how to start a community garden; you can contact it at P.O. Box 209, Venice, CA 90294; (310) 822-5410.

Food First, a project of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, is also active in promoting urban farming; it is at 398 60th St., Oakland, CA 94618; (510) 654-4400; For a comprehensive Web site on the subject, check out't miss the "Tele-Garden" for those with "no garden space whatsoever.")

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