Friday, 23 December 2011

Converting Urban and Suburban Lands for Growing Food


The following is excerpted from The Urban Food Revolution, published by New Society Publishers.

I felt just a little conspicuous walking through the South Side of Chicago; I was the only white person in view since I got off the bus many blocks away. I was headed to Growing Home's Wood Street Urban Farm in the Englewood neighborhood. "You must be going to the garden," a man said to me as I walked past a cluster of friends chilling on a porch a few blocks away from the garden. The garden and I are both relative newcomers to the neighborhood. Its parent organization, Growing Home, was started in 1992 by Les Brown, Director of Policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, but this farm has only been around since 2007. It's a beacon of hope and fresh food in a depressed neighborhood with few real food stores. A restaurant I passed on the way, Pappy's Restaurant, featured shrimp, fish, chicken wings, tacos and burritos. A "Fresh Meat" store had nothing but liquor ads in the window.

Hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac in a resolutely residential neighborhood, Wood Street Urban Farm's trim, neat rows of vegetables under hoop-house frames bespeak a new standard of eating and growing local. Through the back of one hoop house, I could see the homes right across the street. This two-third-acre site is a farm, but it is far away from typical farmland.

Three collegiate-looking young people are bunching turnip greens, mint and radishes for an upcoming farmers market on the north side of town. Selling produce at the various farmers markets is just one way the farm makes money to support itself.

The Wood Street Urban Farm provides job training through its non-profit organic agriculture business. Upstairs, in the brand new office building (finished July 2009), the day's training class breaks for an afternoon smoke. These trainees are people with employment barriers who are learning the basics of finding work. They look more like hip young people than farmers, but they're being trained for any job they can get that's food-related. This year has been better than last: one member of the class already has a job. Today's class is trying to figure out how to attract neighbors to the Wednesday veggie stall set up on the premises.

Before the spartan but classy new offices were built, vandalism was an issue with the farm's on-site trailer. Now things are better. In 2008 the farm produced approximately 5,000 pounds of produce; a year later it was double that. Spinach, lettuce, arugula, swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini, beets, turnips, kale, mustard greens and collards all grow happily in the warm, moist hoop-house climate, oblivious to the traditional urban surroundings.

Wood Street Urban Farm is just one of many new intrusions of agriculture and food production into the urban food revolution landscape. To think of food production in cities as an intrusion is odd. Historically, food has been an integral part of city life; in fact, the first cities came into being to store and protect domesticated agricultural produce. In the developing world, live food is still everywhere in cities. Without that urban produce, many more people would be starving than already are.

Live food--cattle, chickens, orchards, pigs, vegetables--has been a major presence in cities through the ages. Only in very recent years has food production been pushed out beyond the city boundaries and processed food been brought in the back way--through suburban warehouses and hidden loading bays behind centralized supermarkets; now, food magically appears out of trucks, trains, planes and ships from places we know nothing about.

Today's challenge is to bring food back into our cities in a much more visible and tangible way, "past forward" to a 21st century model that feeds on the new technologies and the old reality that everything we eat has to grow somewhere--​the closer, the fresher.


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