Monday, May 19, 2014

How Cleveland's Urban Farming Project is Helping Neighborhoods Find Homegrown Solutions

by Nomad

In many urban neighborhoods, a lack of access to affordable food, especially fresh produce, has reduced the inter-city to "food deserts." As many US cities are learning, urban farming can bring oases to such communities.

One doesn't normally associate hunger with urban life. Cities were supposed to be about shared resources and shared responsibilities. That's how they came into being in the first place.
Today, however, for the poor, the problem is trying to find nourishing food at affordable prices.
As UNICEF reported back in 2012,
Urban areas may appear to have great levels of food availability and security, however not every family is granted access to those resources. The urban poor experience high levels of food insecurity because of poverty and social exclusion. Urbanization ultimately leads to poverty because families incur high costs in paying for food, housing, health fees, transportation, school and other basic necessities.
The food, especially fresh produce, simply isn't available at an affordable price.

Cleveland's Blight
Substandard (or nonexistent) health care combined poor nutrition at an early age can have long-term health consequences. (We touched upon that subject in another post recently.)

Take the city of Cleveland, Ohio.
In the same year as the UNICEF report, another report revealed that Cleveland had the third highest level of childhood poverty in the nation, trailing behind– San Juan, Puerto Rico and Detroit. With 47,000 children, Cleveland has a childhood poverty rate of 53 percent, more than double the national average of 23 percent. It is also far above Ohio’s statewide average of 24 percent.
The information comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Communities Survey and the Kids Count Data Center, which compared the nation’s 50 largest cities.
Suffice to say, Cleveland is no place for young kids.

The news unfortunately didn't get any better when the data was updated late last year. It showed that the percentage had in fact climbed in each of the past five years. As one source points out:
Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development, the Kids Count report said. Poverty and financial stress can impede children’s cognitive development and their ability to learn. It can also contribute to behavioral, social and emotional problems and poor health.
While the problem in Cleveland may seem extraordinary, this city shows the same patterns of unequal access to food and the consequent health problems that are found in most industrialized cities.

Finding solutions requires all hands on deck, from the residents of the neighborhoods, to non-profit organizations, corporations through donations of materials and technical expertise and yes, when necessary, some government support.

One a national nonprofit organization, The Fair Food Network (FFN) has been working at a grass-roots level to find solutions.
According to FFN, America has a "broken food system that limits access to healthy, fresh, and sustainably grown food to many low-income families and under-served communities." 
The average plate of food, the organization points out, in our homes or restaurants travels 1,500 miles from where the food is grown. With every mile, there is a natural degradation of quality and an increase in cost.

FNN explains that where the residents are the poorest, there is generally low access to healthful food outlets. These areas have been called "food deserts." Bottom line is that healthy and nutritious food must be geographically close enough to a consumer to be useful. 
That seems obvious but it hasn't been happening mostly for economic reasons. One 2009 study from the University of California and Michigan found that:
Prevalence of food deserts in poorer neighborhoods is driven by lack of consumer demand, as the poor have less money to spend on healthful, nutritious food. From an economic standpoint, low demand does not justify supply. Food retailers are also discouraged from opening chains in low-income rural and urban communities because of crime rates, transportation costs and low return of investment .
In such areas, the kind of shops that remain tend to be gas stations, convenience stores, tobacco stores, drugstores, and liquor stores. Basing a diet on foods from these locations like these isn't exactly the road to healthy living. In places like these, one generally finds foods that are heavily processed foods, high in calories, sugars, salt, fat, and artificial ingredients. 
Twenty-five percent of residents of the Cuyahoga County live in  areas that could be considered "food deserts." 
Shocking as that is, that number actually doubles within the city of Cleveland.  

From Hopeless Homes to Hoop Houses 
In one of its many projects, The Fair Food Network has been working with one neighborhood in one of the neglected parts of Cleveland, Ohio. That effort  comes with the blessing of Mayor Frank G. Jackson whose goal has been to rebuild and revitalize Cleveland neighborhoods. 
It's not a small problem either; Cleveland is a city that reportedly has up to 15,000 vacant homes and 2,000 demolitions a year. 

That's the result of a declining population. It is a statewide problem. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton and Akron all suffered huge population declines from 2000 to 2010. Cleveland has gone from having a population of about 478,000 in 2000 to about 390,000 in 2010.
Cleveland lost 17% of its population to fall to 396,815 — its fewest inhabitants since 1900. The city peaked in 1950 at 914,808. More residents abandoned the city from 2000 to 2010 than in the 1990s.
According to 2010 United States census figures, every fifth house in Cleveland could be torn down and there would still enough housing to meet the needs of the current population. One source reports that Cleveland has about 207,000 housing units according to census figures, and it counts about 167,000 as being occupied. 
That leaves a lot of empty building eyesores and empty plots going to waste.

The specific aim of this project seeks to turn vacant lots into small neighborhood farms.

As part of Cleveland's Urban Agriculture Project, volunteer residents come together under the guidance of trained experts to construct high tunnels or, as they are also known   "hoop houses."

Hoop houses are a cost-effective and a relatively easy to build type of greenhouse. While simple in design, they allow urban farmers to dramatically extend the growing season by 1-3 months. Most importantly, these structures provide low-cost locally-grown produce for the community.

It is more than merely building greenhouses. The program also involves a long-term commitment and skill development for the local residents, some of whom may have no knowledge of the specifics of farming.
FFN, hoop house specialist Adam Montri, and local partners are offering technical, production, and marketing assistance, while the Federation’s team is identifying and resolving EQIP eligibility issues, fostering leadership development, and leading community organizing, especially as it pertains to local schools and youth training in urban agriculture.
Participating farmers/gardeners can also attend classroom-based workshops which can broaden their agricultural skills on topics such as pest control and soil maintenance as well as pricing, marketing, and farm economics. Its ultimate goal is not only turn people into entrepreneurs but to help change a food "desert" into an oasis of fruits and vegetables.

The Cleveland Urban Agriculture Project began in the fall of 2012 after the earlier success of a $1.1 million pilot program with a 6-acre urban farm in Cleveland's Kinsman neighborhood. That project was funded with a $740,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and grants of $100,000, each from Cleveland and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

In fact, there are many such projects throughout the country. Boston, New York and Detroit all have similar urban farming projects. 

In fact, FFN is partnered with a diverse collection of organizations; from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Wells Fargo & Company to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Ohio State University Extension, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Financial assistance comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
Additionally, a wide variety of donors that include private foundations, corporations, individuals, government agencies and cooperating organizations all play a role in FFN's success. 

The Limits and the Hidden Harvest
Nobody is claiming that urban farms will feed a city.
Every city has its own set of problems. Land space, time and financial resources must all be considered in a realistic way if city farms are to make a difference. 

Will Allen in his book, The Good Food Revolution. noted that:
“If we are going to foster a revolution in the methods of American agriculture, we must pioneer ways to make small-scale farming economically viable. The honest truth is that with urban agriculture, we are not there yet.”
But it is a step in the right direction that can in time be improved upon. As any farmer worth his salt would tell you, one cannot expect much if you don't plant the seeds. And patience really is a virtue for the important things in life.. even in our instant gratification society. 

Urban farming may also serve a less obvious purpose. So says urban farming skeptic Jason Mark in his Gastronomica essay. Gardens, he says, can grow good citizens.
They teach people to work together to nurture something almost as vulnerable as a democracy. And, they provide an object lesson in the value of food.
And that's true at all levels, not merely at the level of neighbor farmer or consumer but also at the level of corporate donor and government bureaucrat. The Cleveland urban farm project, may provide a hard-to-find example of what happens when diverse agendas are sublimated for the sake of a higher goal. 

All in all, that's not bad harvest. 

As Thomas Jefferson, who was a strong advocate for an American agrarian society, wrote in Aug. of 1785:
"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it's liberty and interests by the most lasting bands."
Can we say the same thing for the worst of the corporations or the greediest of Wall Street bankers?