Local urban farming. Is it the solution?

Yes, in part.

Many agree that urban farming can do a lot. It can help generate needed jobs in areas that are struggling economically. It can increase the availability of affordable, healthy produce to urban residents, contributing to food security and justice. It can reconnect people with the food they eat, reducing reliance on processed foods. It can even contribute to ecological sustainability, depending on the farming practices (Organic Agriculture, Environment and Food Security FOA Report 2002).

Sustainable growing provides an amazing educational opportunity for youth—they get to see first hand how ecosystems function, helping to address the underperformance in science (Handbook of Research on Science Education 2007). And urban farming provides an economic alternative to urban consumers. Instead of purchasing food from multinational corporations such as Pepsi-Co, Tyson Food Inc., Nestle which concentrate profits for people outside the community contributing to wealth inequality, consumers can buy produce from their neighbors. It is a way for local people to create real wealth and health based on real local resources, such as land, water, sun, and human power.

City Growers in partnership with the Urban Farming Institute held the First Annual Urban Agriculture Conference at Roxbury Community College on March 9, 2013.  City Growers Co-Founder Glynn Lloyd set the tone for the conference with his opening remarks:  “Urban farming is a movement.” Indeed it is. We are seeing efforts to support urban farming and community gardening in cities throughout the United States and the world.  Some of the US leaders are Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon. The Urban Design Lab at Columbia University has been analyzing the potential for New York City urban agriculture. Building on long history of growing food in the city, Boston is currently working on a zoning ordinance that will support urban farms. City of Somerville has already done so. Somerville residents can keep bees and up to 6 hens with a permit. The City of Somerville has even started the Urban Agriculture Ambassador Program with Green City Growers, an organization located in Somerville.

But is this enough?  I would suggest that we can and need to do more. If we want the benefits of urban agriculture to be lasting and equitable, urban food production needs to be considered as a one part of a larger solution. Why? At the end of the day, food is only a fraction of what we actually consume. And food systems are embedded in the larger web of production-consumption.

Currently, very little of what New Englanders consume is grown or produced in the region. Increasingly we are outsourcing production and manufacturing, giving consumers little choice but to buy from far away places such as China, where there is little oversight in terms how things are produced.  By buying our provisions made in China, we are actively exporting jobs. We are also relinquishing control as consumers, and often inadvertently compromising our values by buying products from companies that do not treat people or the environment with respect. We are even using public funds to support outsourcing by expanding our stressed ports.

Our efforts and solutions need to look at this larger system. It’s more than about urban farming and more than about food. It’s about about creating a regional system.

It seems that we have the capacity to generate regional provisioning systems that could provide more, not necessarily all, of our needs. We should envision infrastructure that helps local economies connect to these regional provisioning systems. In doing so, these systems could create more jobs, reduce impact on the environment, increase food, water, energy security, improve wealth distribution, and contribute to thriving communities. And become a model for resilient, sustaining regions around the world.

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