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Are We There Yet? Urban Farming

Editor's Note: As awareness of the need to improve access to healthy food grows, communities are making urban farming a key strategy in their sustainability plans. This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? explores urban farming and other creative ways communities are addressing the lack of access to healthy food.

In urban neighborhoods, the interest in moving away from corporate farms and stores and toward local, organic food sources has boosted interest in urban farms. Cities across the country are changing ordinances to permit the sales of home-grown produce — and even allowing the raising of farm animals — as residents demand access to high-quality food and greater connection to the source of that food.

Baltimore’s urban agriculture movement, for example, has taken root with a cadre of small-time entrepreneurs launching urban farms and rooftop gardens with the support of local foundations, city agencies, a city food policy director and “healthy food zoning.” One urban farm is run by the city school district, another by a Montessori charter school and a third by an urban service corps.

Other farmer/entrepreneurs are starting “crop circles” and rooftop gardens to provide members of this “community sponsored agriculture” program with shares of the harvest. Baltimore’s Big City Farms is creating a national network of urban farms on underutilized land in U.S. cities with the goal of aggregating these efforts and getting big contracts with major customers such as Whole Foods.

Baltimore’s urban farmers were able to get the support of the city, which created a Food Policy Task Force after urban farming was deemed a key strategy in the city’s sustainability plan. First steps included drafting a zoning code allowing residents to grow and sell produce in higher-density neighborhoods and on city-owned vacant lots. The city is requesting proposals to turn city-owned vacant lots into farms and is providing a central site for composting. Beth Strommen, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, says her role is to help urban farmers navigate city bureaucracy. “The concept of farming in the city is new,” she tells grist.org. “I’m trying to help farmers keep their costs down.”

But even with the right zoning and government support, urban farmers still face substantial challenges in urban environments, where dust containing lead from vehicle exhaust, lead-based paint and manufacturing facilities has worked its way into the soil. Studies show that lead levels are highest around the foundations of buildings and within a few feet of city streets. The number of programs helping residents test their yards for lead has increased, partly in response to the growing urban farming movement.

Eating Right

In the absence of a quality grocery store located in every neighborhood, communities have gotten creative. We’d like to give shout-outs to:

The Healthy Corner Store Program in Minneapolis sets retailers up with produce-handling training and a store operations manager at a local food co-op to develop a merchandising plan and get help on pricing and margins.

Under Philadelphia’s Philly Bucks program people get $2 in credit for every $5 they spend at participating farmers markets, which also accept food stamps.

Baltimore’s public library has created a virtual supermarket allowing residents to order food online from a full-service supermarket. The food is delivered to the public library for residents to pick up, and the city pays for delivery.

The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning CommYour Linkission is working to integrate a local food system that includes community gardens, a neighborhood campus that teaches classes in food production, transportation planning focused on food access, and a healthy food team.

In Spartanburg, South Carolina, 40 community vegetable gardens have been planted to supply two weekly farmers markets and a mobile food truck that sells fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income neighborhoods.

The Miami-Dade Health Department is revising policies and practices to increase the availability of healthy foods at schools, worksites, hospitals and other community institutions.

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