Urban Agriculture

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, September 5, 1997

Urban Agriculture isn't an oxymoron. It's a growing trend!

In our former farming town, the fields are rapidly being covered with very large, expensive houses. We receive many flyers in the mail each week which offer free food at nearby supermarkets, ("Buy one, get two free!").

In the cities, however, there is little, if any, remaining farmland and few, if any, supermarkets to give food away. People in urban areas are at the end of a very long food chain. Shopping at suburban superstores is nearly impossible without a car. Convenience stores and fast-food outlets sell the highest profit items - sodas, fries and highly-processed, junk food. Greasy and sugary snacks are the most readily available foods in many city neighborhoods. Kids eat chips and drink artificially-colored, sugar water because they are so much more available than healthy snacks like fresh fruits and vegetables.

In this country, nearly 80 cents of every dollar spent on food pays for distribution - that is, for what happens to food after it leaves the farm- for transporting, processing, packaging, advertising, and marketing what the farmer grows. Farmers get less money, while the folks in the middle take more, and exert greater control over food distribution. Those who are well-off can buy almost anything they want from anywhere in the world, with lots of freebies thrown in. Meanwhile, the urban masses get to eat what's most profitable for large food distribution companies like Philip Morris, Nestle, PepsiCo and McDonalds.

As a result, cities struggle to deal with increasing volumes of food packaging waste and with the adverse health effects of junk-food diets. The air is polluted by trucks bringing in food and taking out garbage, as well as by the power plants which are needed for this energy-intensive food system. And, most of the money spent on food leaves town.

Unemployment is high in the cities, yet many there have skills and experience in small-scale food production down south, up north or in the islands. And, increasingly, large quantities of compost are being produced from urban, biodegradable wastes.

Given this situation, it's no wonder that urban agriculture is growing so rapidly, and showing so much promise. Although we've been carefully brainwashed in this country (with textbook pictures and all the rest) to imagine big fields traversed by enormous machines when we think of agriculture, the reality for much of the world is now (and for most of history was) very different. Food has been, and still is in many places around the world, grown in gardens and on small farms near where people live.

Mexico City 500 years ago, German cities over 300 years ago, Paris 100 years ago and cities in Africa and Asia for much of their history, had advanced and elegant systems for producing food. Today, Hong Kong, the most densely populated city on Earth, produces two-thirds of its own poultry and nearly half of its vegetables. City gardens now provide 15 percent of the world's food supply.

In short, urban agriculture provides fresher food, improved nutrition, satisfying work and recreation, too. It reduces non-degradable waste and recycles biodegradable wastes, while saving energy, reducing pollution and creating beautiful neighborhoods. Not bad.

The community garden is one of the most important components of urban agriculture. It provides opportunities for landless residents to produce some food and oftentimes income.

Take New Haven, for example. It now has about 50 community gardens, up from just three in 1991, when the New Haven Land Trust joined forces with long-time community garden organizer Sylvia Dorsey. For nearly 20 years, with more success in the tough times than in the "go-go" 1980s, Sylvia has been working on community gardens in New Haven. Support from local foundations, the Land Trust and City Hall, and the work of many dedicated people, have played a part in community gardens' recent growth and success.

Tomorrow morning the New Haven Land Trust hosts a tour of six community gardens in four neighborhoods, run by a variety of organizations. Many of these gardens are on formerly garbage-strewn vacant lots. The tour starts at 9 a. m. at the corner of Winchester Avenue and Webster Street, between Yale University and Science Park.

For more information, call the New Haven Land Trust at (203) 466-7701.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.