Urban Farming: A Remedy for Food Deserts

A boy with sprouts and beans at South Central Farm in Los Angeles, California
A boy with sprouts and beans at South Central Farm in Los Angeles, California. Located at 41st and Alameda, the farm comprises 14 acres and is one of the largest urban farms in the U.S. Photo: Jonathan McIntosh.

One of the most dynamic movements in modern agriculture is happening not out in traditional farm country, but right in the heart of cities around the world. Urban farming has the potential to provide city-dwellers with fresh, organically-grown vegetables grown close to home, providing an especially valuable resource in the parts of cities that have become food deserts.

As the name implies, a food desert describes a situation where local residents have no access reasonably-priced, healthy food, even if they’re living in a city. Not surprisingly, food deserts tend to be in the lower-income sectors of cities, which also have a dearth in convenient public transportation.

Residents who have trouble paying for bus passes or taxi fares, and who don’t own a car, are dependent on local stores to for food. But if there’s no grocery store within a reasonable distance, they’re stuck with often more expensive and less healthy food selections at small corner stores or fast food restaurants. Getting fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods may be impossible in those circumstances.

South Central Farm
South Central Farm, Los Angeles, California. Photo: Jonathan McIntosh.

This is when urban farms can become an oasis of hope and sustenance. Urban farms are more than a backyard vegetable patch. Rather, they’re larger, more organized enterprises that are shared by a community or group of families.

One advantage that less expensive neighborhoods have over more expensive ones is they tend to have vacant lots. A vacant lot can provide an ideal spot for urban farms. Other opportunities include city rooftops and former landfills.

In addition to fruits and vegetables, some urban farms, have expanded to other goods, like flowers, which are sold to fund the farm itself as well as expansion. Chicago Eco House is one organization that helps with these types of projects, as well as training students and local with gardening and entrepreneurial skills.

Getting flowers ready to sell
Getting flowers ready to sell. Photo: Chicago Eco House.

Some of the most successful urban farms have been able to expand into growing produce in greenhouses, to extend the growing season and provide even more fresh vegetables and fruits year round. Some urban farms even have small orchards.

But growing fresh organic fruits and vegetables for local residents is at the heart of the urban farm movement. Whether it’s run as a for-profit business with the produce sold to local residents, or locals voluntarily growing their own food in a communal setting, urban farms have the potential to produce up to 10 percent of the food crops that we rely on for a healthy diet.

One successful urban farm in Washington DC not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables in a former food desert, it also helps women of color earn a living from farming. Working on a two acre plot belonging to a Catholic order, they sell fresh produce to the members of their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) group.

Here’s a video from Matter of Fact about the Three Part Harmony Farm in DC:

While urban farms may not be able to meet all of the food needs of inner-city populations, they offer an opportunity for city residents to have access to vital fruits and vegetables in an environment where before they had none.

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