Beyond the beautiful gardens: Can urban farms grow our food?

hawthorne SOCC farm_Youth Farm

Hawthorne Garden // Photo courtesy Youth Farm

Along bike paths, in church parking lots, and between high-rise apartments, vegetable gardens are beginning to green. Soon, urban growers like the farmers behind Stone’s Throw Urban Farm and the high-school students of Youth Farm will be filling CSA boxes and farmers’ market stalls with glossy eggplants, vibrant peppers, and verdant kale—the freshest, most delicious produce in the city.

The beauty of such bounty is compounded by the impact these efforts are having on our health, environment, and local economy.  These farms and gardens are providing food access, jobs, entrepreneurial opportunities, and knitting us together in shared goals. Measured against corporate farming practices, the amount of real food grown within city limits is very high; the positive effect of such produce on our quality of life, however, is trickier to tally.

West side Robert Street garden // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

West Side Robert Street Garden // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

Urban farming is far more than a “feel good” endeavor. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, over 800 million people worldwide grow fruit and vegetables and raise animals in cities, producing an astonishing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food. What’s often missed in conversations about the viability of urban farms is the fact that corporate farms grow corn and soy, not food. These commodities become fuel, plastics, animal feed, and the ingredients in processed food products. In our climate, 100-square-feet of urban land has the potential to produce over 100 pounds of fresh produce—more than a family of four can eat in one season. According to Jonathan Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, “our consumption of corn is in high-fructose syrup and meat.” Thus, a 100-square-foot patch in a field of corn or soy would provide less than a week’s worth of real food.

Consider that during my grandmother’s life, during World War II, our government rationed food and promoted Victory Gardens as a patriotic activity. Posters encouraged students to become “Soldiers of the Soil.” The Dowling Community Garden, in Minneapolis, was one of them, and remains in vigorous production today. During the war, such gardens provided 50 percent of a family’s food and 40 percent of all the vegetables grown in the United States. Today, a mere 10 percent of a household’s produce comes from a local source. We can and should do better—much better.

Back in 2008, recognizing that Minneapolis boasts some of the richest growing soil in the world, Megan O’Hara, with support from her husband, then Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, initiated the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council with the mission of expanding our ability to grow, process, distribute, eat, and compost more healthy, sustainable, locally grown foods. Partnering with city government, area businesses, community organizations, nonprofits, and residents, the council is working to build a healthy, local food system.

Lyndale Pillsbury Farm // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

Lyndale Pillsbury Farm // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

The Food Council’s work has helped change the city’s understanding of “highest and best use” for land—use that reflects our shared values for the land we live on beyond a parcel’s potential for tax revenue. Last year, the Minneapolis City Council adopted the Community Garden, Market Garden, and Urban Farm Policy. Like San Francisco and a handful of other progressive cities, Minneapolis is now leasing more vacant, city-owned lots to farms and gardens. More than just increasing the number of lots dedicated to food production, the initiative extends the lease terms for parcels while defining, reducing, and streamlining administrative and insurance fees, and makes these lots available to farmers and market gardeners who offer CSA shares and sell at the market.

“The new policy opened up city land for agriculture,” notes Caroline Devany, one of Stone’s Throw’s full-time farmers. “Up until now, the leases that have been available to businesses like ours are the result of foreclosures and are temporary. Under longer-term leases, Stone’s Throw hopes to continue to refine practices for growing food in the city and establish a viable economic model.” Happily, in 2014, the Minneapolis Parks Board also adopted its Urban Agriculture Activity Plan, which outlines the involvement of Minneapolis parks in urban agriculture.

For many years, the only fresh food option for residents of Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood was Aldi, which sells discount produce that’s often well past its shelf life. Addressing this, Hope Community, a nonprofit community center and shelter provider, partnered with the Land Stewardship Project to create a huge community garden that has been going strong for the last six years. Over 170 volunteers worked on the gardens last year, and the produce went to anyone who wanted fresh peppers, cucumbers, cilantro, tomatoes, strawberries, and everything else being harvested.

Next page: Can local food feed the world?

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