By Adam Brock
The last decade has seen sustainability principles begin to redefine the way we do business – as the success of Somerton Tanks proves, even growing food in the city can be profitable. But while the green business revolution is far from over, the frontlines of environmentalism have begun shifting towards the next and final frontier in a triple-bottom-line society: equity.
The concept of environmental justice has been around for a couple decades, of course, but the last year or so has seen it move to the center of the sustainability discourse. Much of the credit probably goes to the charismatic director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Van Jones. With his mantra of “connecting the people who most need work with the work that most needs doing,” Jones landed a starring role in Tom Freidman’s column a couple months back and led a successful campaign to get a “Green Jobs For All” act included in the energy bill currently being debated in the house.
That legislation focuses on creating a new energy economy, training thousands of inner-city residents to weatherize homes, install solar panels, and the like. But what about food? As the locavore movement continues to pick up momentum and rising agricultural prices make food security a serious issue, this same enthusiasm could easily be applied to create a new generation of farmers in the city’s core.
No doubt, the inner city could use a farm or two. Gentrification may have transformed much of the urban landscape into a sea of Starbucks and lofts, but many neighborhoods remain ignored by creative-class types and municipal services alike. In these areas, decades-long patterns of disinvestment have led to the creation of “food deserts”: where the only sustenance around comes from overpriced corner stores and unhealthy fast-food chains. Forced to eat poorly in areas with bad air quality and little in the way of health care, low-income city dwellers are suffering dearly: according to a report from the New England Journal of Medicine, African American men are less likely to reach the age of 65 than men in Bangladesh.
It’s no surprise, then, that in food deserts across the country, cityfarming programs have begun sprouting from once-vacant lots – call them food oases. Programs like Detroit’s Black Community Food Security Network, the Cityslicker Farms in West Oakland, and Added Value in Brooklyn’s Red Hook are as diverse as the neighborhoods they’re in. Nearly all, though, share a strong emphasis on youth involvement and a commitment to feeding the hungry, whatever the cost.
One of the most successful food oases has been a Boston-area program simply called the Food Project. Founded in 1991, TFP puts 100 paid teenagers and thousands of volunteers to work on five small-scale urban plots and a 31-acre farm in rural Massachusetts. Cumulatively, the Food Project farms grow 250,000 pounds of produce per year, which is split evenly between donations to local shelters and sales from CSAs and farmers’ markets. The Food Project’s initial goals were successful enough that they’re now spreading the word across the country: in 2003 The Food Project launched BLAST, an initiative to develop a nationwide youth-led movement around sustainable food (of which the Real Food campaign is a part)
While, running an inner-city urban farm is perhaps one of the most noble pursuits of the regeneration, it’s also one of the most challenging. There’s yet to be a food oasis that earns a profit: even the Food Project only gets a tenth of its budget from sales. But the science of urban agriculture is still young, and much remains to be explored in terms of maximizing yield, growing unconventional crops, and creative methods of outreach and revenue generation.
How might the first moneymaking food oasis go down? Let’s posit an intrepid group of urban farmers on the edge of gentrification – in Bed-Stuy, perhaps, or Chicago’s Southeast Side– that manage to secure $100,000 in start-up capital and a half-acre of free land. The farm is managed by a three-person paid staff, with the rest of the labor coming from community gardeners, interns, and school programs. At first, the soil on the site is of poor quality and contaminated with heavy metals, so the initial crops are grown in raised beds and self-watering containers while a program of compost and bioremediation works to restore fertility to the soil below. The growing space is split 50/50 between nutritional staples destined for the nearby local food banks, and high-value crops like berries and lettuce for CSAs and farmer’s markets.
After three years, the container gardens are thriving, but the grants have run out and the project is barely making enough revenue to sustain itself. To further its income, the program works out a deal with a nearby commercial kitchen to make value-added products like salsa and jam to sell at the farmers’ market. Fast forward another few years, and the farm is earning a hefty profit from the salsa as well as from a successful gourmet mushroom business. Some of these profits enable the construction of a small greenhouse for lucrative aquaculture and winter tomatoes…
…and so on. Sounds unrealistic? Perhaps it is, at this point, anyway. But dismissing it as too idealistic can only guarantee failure. If, on the other hand, we aim to feed the poor, restore nature to the city and turn a profit all at once – well, it just might happen despite ourselves.