by Marena Gibson
A food desert is, by definition, a geographic area lacking in “fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods”. It is devoid of grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and other healthy food providers. Instead, fast food restaurants and corner markets are king when it comes to food supply, creating a swamp of unhealthy foods. Food deserts are inherent to health problems that stem from poor diet such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. What can be done?
Urban Farming: A Practical, Convenient Solution
At first it sounds like an oxymoron. Isn’t that what makes an area urban in the first place? That it isn’t rural land, where farms would be found? Farming doesn’t seem like it belongs in cities, does it?
In fact, successful farming is what gave rise to the first cities in human history. Eridu, considered the first city to ever exist (it was founded over 7,000 years ago), was located in Mesopotamia, on the extremely fertile land nearby the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Practically every ancient city that followed did as well. This is no coincidence: thousands of years ago, proximity to food was essential for survival, and necessary for any type of growth or prosperity.
So what happened in modern America?
In the 1600s, the first European colonizers didn’t immediately establish cities supplied by food from distant farms. With help from the Native Americans, they learned to cultivate and grow food within their settlements. Nowadays, with our extensive shipping networks, it’s easy to truck in food from the other side of the country, or fly food in from the other side of the world, effectively distancing ourselves from our food.
Throughout the modern United States’ relatively short history, the relationship between Americans and food gardening has fluctuated; there have been several resurgences of individuals growing their own food in economic depressions and times of war, but in general, farming has been phased out of the cities and suburbs since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. But in recent decades there has been a movement to summon farming back into cities for several reasons, like sustainability, affordability, health, and convenience. The elimination of food deserts is just one of many beneficial side effects of urban farming.
Before we examine modern urban farming, the motives behind it, and the results produced, let’s take a brief look at gardening in the modern US to better understand how we progressed from growing crops within steps of our homes, all the way to a point where an estimated 25-30 million Americans live in food deserts.
The History of Gardening in the United States
*Important: Keep in mind that from the very beginning of this timeline until 1865, when the 13th amendment was added, enslaved people who suffered, survived and sometimes escaped the brutal and traumatizing conditions of slavery were an intrinsic component of horticulture and agriculture in the US, and the overwhelming majority of large-scale farming was built on their labor. Despite abolishment of slavery, indentured servitude was another odious scheme for enslaved people to “progress” to that allowed the production of food among other things to continue.
1. 1600s - Beginnings
2. 1700s - Expansion
3. 1800s - Shifting Values
4. 1900s - Changes in Purpose
After examining the history of agriculture, it becomes clear that over a relatively short period of time, we’ve both moved away from our food, as well as pushed it back to make more room for cities, suburbs, and towns. Farming communities have become sights on a road trip, instead of pieces of everyday life.
Urban Farming Today: A Snapshot
Grade-school history has shown us what urban farming was, but what is it today? I’ve always associated farms with giant cornfields and cows; I rarely had any experience closer to home. In elementary school, my teacher had us plant snap peas as part of a lesson plan. And once my mom tried to grow tomatoes in our backyard, but...Yikes. To me, food farming was either a massive, commercial operation, or a sad, stunted tomato plant with a few sad, stunted tomatoes. The term “urban farming” left me confused. Cities are packed! There’s no room for cornfields. Where do the cows live??
How does it play out in real life? Of course, there are challenges to be faced. Creativity, ingenuity and hope has proven to be essential in the urban farming movement when it comes to navigating the logistics. Here’s some information that will both clarify the concept of and shed light on the benefits of this movement:
Chicago: Aquaponics and Vertical Farming
If you’re more of a visual learner like me, here’s a video that introduces the topic, and exhibits a successful urban farming operation in Chicago that utilizes multiple techniques for maximum (sustainable!) production.
No matter the city, farmers will find a way.
Fighting Food Deserts
The problem: food deserts. The solution: urban farming. Let’s bring it full circle, and look at just how urban farming remedies the issues causing these food deserts, as well as the issues stemming from them.
Urban farming brings affordable, easy access to healthy, nutritious food, especially to ethnic minorities in low-income areas, who make up an overwhelming percentage of the U.S. population living in food deserts, and are disproportionately affected in negative ways:
Diet and health are inextricably linked, and local farming provides feasible access to healthy foods in several ways:
Bringing our food home, and back to urban areas, is arguably one of the best solutions to food deserts. Not only does it wipe out food deserts, but it does so in a way that also benefits greatly. Sure, we could build more grocery stores and improve ease of transportation, but that would be like a band-aid; urban farming eliminates food deserts and prevents future growth, and is a long-term, viable solution that digs closer to addressing the root cause, than just trying to lessen the effects.
P.S. - Curious if you live in/near a food desert? Check out the USDA’s Food Desert Locator here.
Spotlight: Lawns & Water Usage
Back to lawns: They’re just grass. How much water can the average front lawn possibly need?
Between 30 and 60% of the total water consumed by the average American family is devoted to outdoor uses. In the US, that adds up to 9 billion gallons per day-- and that’s just for residential use. Why?
The most sustainable and environmentally-friendly lawns work with nature, rather than against it. Develop healthy soil with natural fertilizers/fertilizer enrichers, like compost. Choose a native grass species and let it grow a little longer to maintain health. California even provides rebates for residents who switch their grasses to more sustainable types! Water correctly and efficiently; a nature-focused approach will reduce water consumption. As an added bonus, healthy, thick grass provides food for birds, prevents soil erosion, and cleans the air by converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. It’s strange, yet fascinating how something as simple as the grass on your front lawn can significantly impact the world around it.
Food Empowerment Project, "Food Deserts." 2011.
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service: Food Access Research Atlas. 2017.
American Nutrition Association, "USDA Defines Food Deserts." 2016.
Smithsonian's Archives of American Gardens, "American Garden History." 2014.
Cornell University, Mann Library, "Harvest of Freedom: The History of Kitchen Gardens in America." 2003.
Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, "How Far Does Your Food Travel to Get to Your Plate?" 2017.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, WaterSense, "Outdoor Water Use in the United States." May 2013.
Schneider, Caroline. "Urban Agriculture: The Potential and Challenges of Producing Food in Cities." Soil Science Society of America, September 2013.
Black, Jane. "Vegetable Garden Will Be Installed on White House Grounds." The Washington Post, March 2009.
Parker-Pope, Tara. "Growing Food on the White House Lawn." The New York Times, January 2009.
Schultz, Colin. "New York Could Grow All Its Own Food." Smithsonian Magazine, February 2014.
Plant This Movie: The International Urban Farming Documentary (2014)
Urban Fruit (2013)
PBS, Wisconsin Foodie, "Growing Power." (2010)
Our Environmental Science blog strives to explain and expose environmental topics and concerns to a wide audience. We hope that this knowledge will help all of our readers embrace a healthy and sustainable lifestyle!