The Need for Inclusivity in Urban Agriculture

You've probably seen (or eaten the products of) urban agriculture and didn't realize it. It's in cities and suburbs, and it encompasses everything from soil-based community gardens, to warehouses full of hydroponics, to rooftops farms supplying greens to the restaurants below. Urban agriculture comes in many shapes and sizes and is expanding. But as urban agriculture grows in popularity, it's also facing some hard truths about institutionalized racism. To achieve equity as well as sustainability in our food system, these issues need to be acknowledged and addressed.

What is Urban Agriculture and What Effect Does Institutional Racism Have on It?

The USDA lists "...backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space," as forms of urban agriculture. Some, however, aren't as inclusive in their assessment, and they parse out urban farming as something other than "community gardening, homesteading or subsistence farming."

This distinction is an unfortunate one because, as "Beyond the Kale" authors Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Cohen point out in their new book about urban agriculture and social justice activism in New York City, "Urban agriculture has been portrayed as a newly emerging activity practiced by young upper-middle-class hipsters." Just look at the recent growth in the popularity of kale as an example. In reality, kale has been around for over 2,000 years and has long been a staple of soul food and southern cooking. Similarly, Reynolds and Cohen say, urban agriculture "...has always been practiced by low-income and working-class residents."

The distinction takes on importance because many urban farming organizations, especially those located in low-income communities, rely on funding sources and zoning that help ensure their continued existence, and this funding is often threatened by technologies that are perceived as new and innovative.

In preparation for Beyond the Kale, Reynolds and Cohen interviewed numerous urban farmers across New York City and found that such threats have caused "imbalances in funding, access to resources and connections to key decision makers that gave particular advantage to white middle-class farmers and gardeners." Interestingly, they heard this feedback from white farmers as well as farmers of color.

The authors found that "technology-based" agriculture forms like rooftop farming and hydroponic growing tend to garner more financial support from grant makers as well as interest from media and the public, than soil-based farming. This pulled focus has served to "disadvantage groups that do not have access to large grants for capital investments," which is often the case with farms in lower-income neighborhoods.

In urban farming, as in all forms of agriculture, the intention is to feed people. As we look for innovative methods of food production that are more efficient and less impactful on the environment and public health, it will become increasingly important to take institutionalized racism into account and understand how it affects equitable access to food, support for urban farming and even how we think about agriculture.

Is There a Difference Between a Garden and a Farm?

The very definitions of gardens and farms have race, gender and class issues woven throughout them. To many people, a garden produces food for your own use whereas a farm produces food you sell to others, and there are stereotypes attached to each of those definitions - gardening is something women do in their suburban backyards; farming is something men do in rural fields.

The distinctions get blurred in urban agriculture, where community gardens often exist to produce food for communities and provide other services like job training, and rooftop farms sometimes produce food for nearby restaurants but not for the public at large. Some field farmers seem to resent the inclusion of urban farmers who tend much smaller spaces into the classification of "farmer," and some gardeners wonder why they aren't considered farmers.  

According to the USDA, the distinction is strictly monetary, where a farm is defined as "...any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year." This definition matters, because urban gardens and farms each come with their own set of funding sources, and when those funds are applied unevenly, farms and gardens alike struggle to survive.

According to the 2010 census almost 81 percent of the population lives in urban areas. Yet, the US started as an agrarian society and farming is in its roots - if you'll pardon the pun. Even in New York City, you can find traces of our agrarian past in the farm houses that have survived the ravages of development in the name of progress and modernity. It makes sense then, that those who live in cities and towns still have that desire to make things grow. It's a satisfying feeling to eat a tomato that you grew yourself, whether you live in the middle of Manhattan, New York or Manhattan, Kansas.

Now more than ever, we need to embrace opportunities to create a more just and equitable food system for all of us, not just those few farmers who have access to funding and consumers who can easily afford organic vegetables. Inclusivity in urban agriculture will help our food system grow into a healthier and stronger system for all.