The rise of global urbanisation from 30% in 1950 to a predicted 66% of the global population in 2050 coupled with unsustainable practices and climate change have called into question food security in urban areas. Calls for action have produced a policy cacophony, with pursuits of ‘silver bullets’ to tackle the complexities of food security. The journey from farm to fork is rarely a symbiotic relationship between farmer and consumer and popular research has furthered this complexity, shifting the blame onto consumers through labelling and knowledge fixes, and hailing supermarkets as desert ‘oases’, whilst ignoring supermarket redlining and the intrinsic neoliberal processes involved in the global food industry.
It is therefore imperative to acknowledge the essential role of community empowerment and collective action in an alternative localised perspective and campaign for food justice and security at all socioeconomic levels. This is particularly relevant considering the rise of migration in urban areas, increasing number of diasporas; and the ‘relatively little research’ on the food practices of ethnic minority groups within the United States and Europe.
Consequently, there has been a call to rethink the ways we map the urban foodscape, highlighting the racialization that stigmatises and excludes neighbourhoods, and challenging stereotypes of supermarkets representing normative middle-class modes of life and farmers embodying wealth and whiteness.
There is potential for this to radically change with the rise of urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a village, town, or city. This broad definition offers countless benefits (see below) and opportunities for community cohesion, sustainable practices and shared knowledges.
It does however have the potential to again be dominated by primarily white graduates from wealthy and enterprising backgrounds such as the plant scientists, roboticists, industrial designers, IT wizards, architects and futurists that build ultra-efficient modular farms at Infarm in Denmark. Other examples mentioned in ‘Is urban farming only for rich hipsters’ include hydroponics and aquaponics enterprise GrowUp creating urban farms in industrial estates in London and even underwater biospheres such as Ocean Reef Group’s research project Nemo’s garden.
Credit Mandy Zammit: Unit 84 hydroponic farm at GrowUp, London
Although these innovative technocratic solutions epitomise Boserup’s philosophy that ingenuity would always outmatch that of demand, there is an equally productive and potentially greater overall socioeconomic and environmentally beneficial solution that requires no more than two words…Grow Food.
Grow Food, the campaign slogan for North Minneapolis-based organisation, Appetite for Change, embodies the simple mantra that has existed long before the technology of hydroponics; and echoes the efforts by other ethnic minority groups such as the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast for School Children Program which fed over 10,000 children daily across the US in 1969.
Appetite for Change (AFC) is a non-profit community organisation that uses food as a vehicle for social change. AFC not only grow and sell produce through an urban growers cooperative, but have created a holistic closed loop system (see video below) that ensures money stays within the community through fee for service contracts, youth facilitated workshops, rented kitchen time for local food businesses and a café and catering service that trains youths in culinary arts.
As a result:
- 10,479 pounds of food was produced in 2014,
- 46 young people are employed with AFC,
- 137 Community Cook workshops, tailored to the unique needs of families, new mothers, youth and even garden curriculum for pre-schoolers.
Urban agriculture is therefore a way to not only provide food but also create social, racial and economic justice and change within communities and through generations.
It is this aspect of community empowerment that arguably has more potential than other urban agricultural projects. Rather than selling above wholesale prices and aiming to commodify premium microgreens for Michelin-starred restaurants, like GrowUp, community projects such as AFC are integrating fresh produce into local restaurants, corner stores, and farmer’s markets. This can greatly influence the wider community and help overcome the problem of food deserts in which store access and quality has been closely tied to neighbourhoods’ economic and racial composition. This is nodded to in AFC’s campaign song that claims, ‘In my hood, they ain’t really much to eat, Popeye’s on the corner, McDonald’s right across the street’.
Source: ‘McDonald’s right across the street’
It is important therefore to empower these civil society organisations (CSOs) over supermarket solutions that have been known to be responsive to neighbourhood stigma through lower investment in deprived areas and are also associated with gentrification among ‘cultural quarters’ urging boycotts such as Bristol’s Think Local: Boycott Tesco. Instead of supporting these initiatives through tax incentives or financial support for new food retail locations which have had ‘limited’ success, investment can instead provide CSOs with financial support and potentially harness the scaling-up capacity of governments.
This is particularly important in lower-income urban areas and cities, such as Detroit which currently has 1,400 urban gardens and farms ranging from the largest, Keep Growing Detroit to local gardens such as Freedom-Freedom Growers who aim to, ‘grow a garden, grow a community’.
Source: An urban farm in Detroit produced by MIFUI
Although the practicality of collaboration between CSOs and governments is not currently obvious it is particularly important considering the burden civil society is not able to handle through neoliberal agendas including the Big Society initiative in place in the UK today. The limitations to urban agriculture including concerns over soil contamination, ordinances to prohibit agricultural practice, and land tenure should therefore be met with support from the appropriate governing entities. Both government and communities can work together towards a common goal; by ‘pulling veggies out the garden’ but also ‘eating healthy school lunch and that’s word to Miss Obama’.
Despite the importance of enterprising urban agriculture in the field of sustainability, the technological innovations attract corporate investment unlike low income neighbourhoods advocating for food justice. Therefore, it is high time that the hood food movement is recognised for its socioeconomic benefits and is supported by the people and institutions that have previously ignored its marginalisation.