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Evolving stories About Growing Food in a Big City

Food funders gather in Philadelphia to discuss urban agriculture

Cassandra West

Awbury Arboretum in Germantown By Susan Richardson

PHILADELPHIA -- The 8th Annual Forum of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders began with a reminder of how far the food movement has come since the group first met in 2003.  Thirty people attended SAFSF's inaugural conference in San Francisco; 155 people are attending  this year's conference in Philadelphia, said Executive Director Virginia Clarke on Tuesday, the first day of the event.

The rising interest mirrors the growing national conversation about urban agriculture, Clarke said. Citing a recent article by food guru Michael Pollan comparing the food movement to a "big lumpy tent," she said the movement's diverse participants, including lawyers, urban planners and designers, and philanthropists, can learn from each other despite differences.

The food movement has taken off, said Greg Horner, a program officer at the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston and moderator of the opening plenary. He noted several examples, from the federal government's support for an office of urban agriculture within the U. S. Department of Agriculture to increased support for food initiatives by funders.

The panelists for the opening plenary, "Shall We Dance? How New Partners Are Helping to Build a Stronger Food System for All," reflected the range of interests coalescing around the food movement, including social equity, urban design and planning, and health and environmental protection.

Tour guide Joan Reilly, senior director Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Panelists were Kimberley Hodgson, manager of the Planning and Community Health Research Center at the American Planning Association; Maria Salgado, programs director of Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, Mass.; and Jason McLennan, an architect and CEO of Cascadia Region Green Building Council.

Emphasizing that urban agriculture is about more than food, Hodgson presented an overview of  initiatives across the country, from farms to community gardens to food banks.  Urban agriculture can help build communities, provide skills training and a recent survey states that it can increase property values in the surrounding neighborhood.  To succeed, urban communities have to overcome some risks, including soil and water contamination, she said.  Raised beds may make it possible to grow healthy food in these communities, but contaminants such as lead, zinc, and chromium can still negatively effect children who play in gardens.

Cities such as Cleveland are increasingly seeing the benefit of urban agriculture for economic development.  In conjunction with Cuyahoga County, the city is tapping into agriculture to create new jobs and businesses, Hodgson said.  The city has a goal to create one community garden per one-quarter square mile.  Cleveland changed its zoning ordinance to create an urban agriculture category, and allows residents to keep small animals such as pigs and chickens.

Salgado discussed how urban agriculture can help build social equity, using examples from Nuestras Raices' work in Holyoke.  The city has the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans of any city outside of the island and also ranks among the poorest cities in the country.  Asthma and obesity are staggering.  "You can't look at urban blight in silos," she said, adding that a "systemic" approach is necessary.

Formed a year ago, Nuestras Raices seeks to address these issues through developing jobs and businesses geared toward urban agriculture and energy conservation.  The organization has developed 10 community gardens with 100 families. It has a green jobs training program for youth, some of whom are working to complete their GEDs. And it plans to open a store that specializes in pork (or a Lechonera), which is popular in the community.

Nuestras Raices (Our Roots, in English) also seeks to grow a heritage: Puerto Rico's agricultural tradition.  Many of the younger generation have rejected it, Salgado said, viewing farming as a "stigma" and moving backwards, rather than a way to make a living.

McLennan, a leading international green building architect, explored how sustainable development can reinforce urban agriculture. He called for re-establishing the relationship between cities and food production, which was lost with the evolution of the modern city.  Citing films such as "Mad Max" and "Blade Runner," and cartoons such as "The Jetsons,"  McLennan said Americans have a vision of the future where they live in very dense settings removed from natural space and get their food by pushing a button.

McClennan said The Living City Design Competition, sponsored by the International Living Building Institute, supports efforts to create more sustainable cities.

With 40,000 vacant lots and a population that has dropped significantly in the last decade, Philadelphia is an example of how a city can tap into urban agriculture to create new economic opportunities.  Following the opening plenary, conference participants spent the afternoon touring urban agriculture projects in the area.

The conference continues through Friday.  For resources and to learn more about the panelists, visit the SAFSF website.