GOOD

Can Urban Farms Translate Popularity into Profitability?

The following is an excerpt from a piece by Sena Christian from the Earth Island Journal's Spring 2010 issue.


City farms are sprouting in all sorts of unlikely places: in empty lots next to apartment complexes, across from high schools, and in old industrial centers. Sizeable food-production plots have sprung up in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Oakland, Milwaukee, Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco. The Food Project in Lincoln, Massachusetts involves more than 100 teenage farmers annually. Brooklyn boasts Added Value in the working class Redhook neighborhood. Phoenix has the aptly named Urban Farm.

Although part of the broader sustainable food phenomenon, many of the country’s urban farms seek to tackle issues that Whole Foods, with its relatively high prices and affluent customers, is not addressing. The urban farm movement aims to take control of food production away from large-scale industrial agriculture and root it within local food systems that attempt to ensure food access for the urban poor. Often located in low-income neighborhoods, many city farms operate off the basic premise that healthy, affordable food is a basic human right. “Food justice” is the mantra of most, if not all, of the organizations in the urban farming movement. That means serving the estimated 14 percent of Americans who experience food insecurity – 49 million people who are unsure where they’ll find their next meal.

Yet urban farming’s potential to address the challenges of our food system remains unclear. Although popularity and trendiness can be big boons to business, these urban farms haven’t yet found a way to thrive in the market economy. Most rely heavily on volunteer labor and grant funding. They may be at the forefront of ecological sustainability, but economic sustainability eludes them. And that’s a problem because they are unlikely to fulfill their aspirations and make a meaningful dent in the problem of food insecurity if they are forever running on the treadmill of foundation funding.

This piece appears in the Summer 2010 issue of Earth Island Journal.

Photo by Anne Hamersky, courtesy of Earth Island Journal.

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