Urban Farms: How Green Is My Barrio
A nationwide inner-city revival brings jobs, fresh produce, and soon, goats?
CHICAGO — When the Jewel supermarket closed in Chicago's inner-city Englewood district, residents had nowhere to buy fresh food but at costly corner stores or distant markets.
"It practically devastated the whole neighborhood," says local resident Willie Baker. "It put a strain on the people physically, financially, and everywhere else."
But now, Englewood's poor can have vine-ripened, inexpensive produce from a large garden just across the railroad tracks. From July to September, low-income residents grow thousands of pounds of zucchini, cabbage, and peppers for distribution to other needy at a federally funded nutrition center housed at the old Jewel store.
As America's inner cities face shortages of fresh produce and cutbacks in government food aid, an increasing number of bootstrap programs like this one in Chicago are empowering the poor to help feed themselves.
The push to alleviate malnutrition through city-based food production - from vegetable plots in vacant lots to rooftop tomato patches and backyard beehives - is profiting from a broader US movement toward urban agriculture.
"Urban agriculture is growing," says Elizabeth Tuckermanty, director of community food projects at the US Department of Agriculture.
The share of US fresh foods grown in metro-area counties has risen in the past decade to reach about 80 percent of fruits, vegetables, and dairy goods. Also, the number of urban farmers' markets has shot up 27 percent since 1994, USDA figures show. And some 750 cities have community garden programs, up from 23 in 1976.
Today, efforts are under way in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Hartford, Boston, and dozens of other cities to help low-income residents tap into these expanding urban food systems - both for affordable produce and for job opportunities.
Such efforts are supported by the 1996 farm bill, which sets aside a total of $13 million over the next six years for "community food projects." More than 120 communities applied for $1 million in grants allocated by the bill this year.
Urban farming offers several benefits for the inner city, advocates say. A small initial investment can provide seasonal jobs for hundreds of residents, supply tons of high-quality produce to local markets, and make environmentally sound use of vast and growing swaths of vacant land.
Less tangible but equally important, they say, are the social and educational benefits for communities that raise their own food.
IN Chicago's Urban Gardening program, for example, inner-city farmers harvested about 5 tons of vegetables last summer on vacant land in three locations, including a large garden at Cook County Jail.
After starting from scratch three years ago, the program now supplies 40 percent of the fresh produce distributed to welfare moms at nutrition centers in Chicago and seeks to expand to 100 percent.
"Chicago has thousands of vacant lots that would be suitable for agriculture, including some entire blocks with houses burned out and torn down," says Ron Wolford, an educator at the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service who runs the program.
Even where urban land is polluted or covered with blacktop, enterprising city farmers are finding ways to grow food. This summer, Chicago food banks received half a ton of tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and other veggies harvested from four-foot-wide wading pools on top of a parking garage near O'Hare Airport.
"In just one parking lot of modest size it is possible to produce several tons of food a year," says Job Ebenezer, who organized the project for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
"Anyone can do this," he says. "Urban agriculture can revolutionize food production in terms of quality and local control."
From Los Angeles to Boston, low-income residents are also expanding on "subsistence" farming for their own nourishment and setting up food enterprises.
In the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, public-housing residents who grow corn and other vegetables year round on a one-acre plot are preparing to set up produce markets. A $64,000 federal grant is training the residents, most of whom are Hispanic, in small-business management and marketing.
In Boston, youth groups in Roxbury are creating jobs for teens through a youth-run system of farms, markets, and possibly a food-processing business making salsa or salad dressing.
In Hartford, Conn., and Washington, inner-city residents travel to work on community farms in the suburbs, taking home produce to eat or sell.
One of the most radical initiatives in urban farming aims to bring livestock to the inner city. Heifer Project International, a poverty relief group active in rural communities worldwide, recently opened a field office in Chicago.
"We are talking about everything from earthworms and honeybees to rabbits, small dairy goats, and fish," says field representative Allison Meares. Chicago, she notes, has no prohibitions on animal husbandry and "is essentially farm-animal friendly."
Residents at the Cabrini-Green housing project want to raise poultry, Ms. Meares says. Two South Side churches plan to keep bees and market a honey-based barbecue sauce. A West Side school hopes to raise rabbits or goats on vacant lots donated by the city.
Bringing animals and farms to the inner city has powerful educational and social benefits, advocates say. "I was excited about an economic venture with animals that kids can pet and care for," says Myra Sampson, principal of the school in Chicago's crime-ridden North Lawndale neighborhood. "It has a real healing effect."
Finally, urban farming helps build communities. "One of the biggest problems in the inner city is breaking down the isolation of people who fear everyone around them," says Ms. Tuckermanty. "The potential [of urban farms] for community development is incredible."