The Rise in Urban Farming

Urban faming is on the rise across the country. With the population of the US expanding exponentially, could urban farming be a part of the larger solution to the growing food crisis?

We know that California is the wealthiest state in the country, and has the sixth largest economy in the world. How then, is it possible that we have so many California residents who are food insecure, or living without reliable access to affordable, high-quality, and nutritious food? In 2015, more than 42 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. Here in California, one in eight residents are considered food insecure. One in eight! We are trying to meet the gap with government programs like food stamps and charitable organizations such as food banks, but we simply aren’t making enough headway.

One of the developments we have seen has been the rise in urban farms. An urban farm, at its core, is simply a small-to-modest sized piece of land, in an urban area, that has been repurposed into a working farm. The majority of urban farms grow fruits and vegetables for food, often on a co-op basis or with a charitable intent (ie—the produce goes to low-income people in the surrounding urban area.) Some urban farms even have livestock such as chicken, ducks, or goats, depending on zoning regulations. Still others even keep bees!  An urban farm can be as small as a front yard devoted to produce, or as large as an abandoned lot turned wholly over to farming. There really are no rules to urban farms—it is just a patch of land located in an urban environment that grows food.

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Image Credit: @charityvictoria

Let’s look at a well-known urban farm right here in the Bay Area: Novella Carpenter’s Ghost Town Farm in West Oakland. She’s become something of a Bay Area luminary, having authored several books on urban farming, speaking to various universities and community groups, and leading events and tours of her working farm that hosts bees, chickens, and dozens of fruit trees. She saw a use for an abandoned lot next door to her house, and sparked a mini-revolution by popularizing urban farms on her blog, Ghost Town Farm, and her memoir, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.

But urban farming is not always without hardship and controversy, as Ms. Carpenter learned the hard way. In 2011, she was told she was in violation of city laws and that she would be fined for growing and selling produce without certain expensive permits — permits she’d been told were probably not needed. Though the matter was eventually cleared up and she was able to resume her farm work, the issues of zoning and permitting remain. As these regulations vary from city to city and county to county, it is up to the urban farmer to find out about any applicable laws or permits. This can be time consuming and confusing, as many of the laws are outdated and were never intended to apply to small-scale urban farms.

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Image Credit: @umuller

Still more controversy can be found on a more philosophical level—some have questioned the value of using vacant lots to grow produce when we have such a housing crisis in California and the Bay Area specifically. They argue that some innovative tax break programs for owners of land that is used for urban farming can actually harm the poor more by making it profitable to leave urban land empty, when so much more affordable housing is needed!

Clearly, we need to find a compromise if urban farming is to take its place at the table in helping to assist those who suffer from food insecurity. Perhaps we can start at home—those of us with a bit of space can start our own vegetable plots, and donate any excess we grow to food banks that accept backyard produce, like Second Harvest Food Bank. Or we can support organizations like Food Shift, that helps redistribute excess or leftover food from restaurants and grocery stores to the hungry. We can push our local governments to make urban farming easier and less complicated for small co-ops and individuals. And we can continue to investigate ways to make housing in the Bay Area more affordable. By continuing to talk about food insecurity, affordable housing, and urban farms, we can come up with solutions together to help make the Bay Area, and California as a whole, more livable and sustainable for everyone.

Main Image Credit: @raqwell


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