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It’s Easy Being Green: Finding Vegetables in Unexpected Places

SOURCE: AP/Morry Gash

Will Allen looks at some lettuce at the former garden center that he transformed into an urban vegetable farm in Milwaukee, WI.

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“In the city of Detroit, the most accessible food-related establishments are party stores, dollar stores, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations,” states the city’s Food Security Policy, which lays out Detroit’s plan for ensuring its residents have access to healthy and affordable food. Urban agriculture is an important part of the solution.

Urban agriculture, or urban farming, is becoming more common not only in Detroit—where some say the trend began—but around the country. Urban farms range from small-scale vegetable gardens in abandoned lots to larger operations with hoop houses and honeybees. Community leaders, unemployed workers, and families are hoping that urban farming can help address many of the problems of American inner cities, from crime rates to incidences of obesity and heart disease.

Economic recession is driving the growth of the farms—halted construction projects and foreclosures make land cheap. The recession has also put people out of work and made groceries less affordable than they once were for many mothers, fathers, and young people, who are turning to gardening to support themselves.

The movement also bridges a gap between the suburbs and the inner city. Vegetable gardening may once have been associated with picket fences and single-breadwinner households, but that’s changing. And though critics of the sustainable food movement have called it “a consumption club for people who’ve traveled to Europe and tasted fine food,” urban farming could prove them wrong, as one expert told The New York Times.

There’s plenty of room to farm in cities. Detroit has 25,000 acres of vacant land, for example, which is enough to cover an area the size of San Francisco. Chicago has 77,000 vacant lots, and the Pittsburgh mayor’s office estimates that 20 percent of the city is vacant or abandoned. These neglected lots and abandoned buildings shelter rodents and crime and encourage illegal dumping.

But they also present an opportunity to urban farmers such as Will Allen. His Milwaukee farm, Growing Power, used to be a nursery site that Allen bought abandoned and in foreclosure in 1993. The farm has been extraordinarily successful largely due to Allen’s charisma and agriculture expertise, which earned him a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Allen’s techniques illustrate how farmers in the middle of a city get creative to utilize limited space. Seeds in Growing Power’s hoop houses are planted at quadruple intensity, and the farm’s aquaponics system filters water from tanks of tilapia and perch into watercress beds, creating an artificial symbiosis.

Urban farming’s benefits are similar to those of organic farming and include reducing soil erosion and chemical runoff, promoting biodiversity, and producing better-tasting fruits and vegetables. But the farms can also provide healthier alternatives to convenience stores and fast food for communities that suffer the most from heart disease and diabetes. Most importantly, they can help create a sense of community.

The Point, a community development organization in the South Bronx, reclaimed vacant land in the city for a 400-square-foot garden. Vegetables grown in the garden go to community kitchens, helping to alleviate the worst hunger rate of any congressional district in the country. And working at the garden encourages kids to stay in school and out of trouble. Urban farming operations such as The Point’s have replaced city-funded community-building programs as municipal governments around the country have cut budgets.

Putting people to work on an urban farm can also help them rehabilitate and find a well-paying job. Many of the Growing Home farm’s interns in Chicago were directed there by their mental health specialists or parole officers. Workers who enter the program from prison have a 5 percent recidivism rate within three years. The statewide average, by contrast, is 50 percent.

Activists of all stripes can find something to like about urban farming, from those concerned about the environment to those appalled by hunger in inner cities to those who want to help kids build a better life for themselves. It’s clear why the movement has so much momentum.

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