Urban Farms: Unlikely Oases in Food Deserts

June 3rd, 2016 by 4 Comments

By Harold Brown

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Harold Brown

“Food desert” is the modern urban description of a supposed area of hunger amid plenty. But one would expect emaciation in a food desert, not obesity, which is caused by overconsumption and bad choices.

The modern urban version is a social-cultural food desert. When these occur, they are likely caused by economic, social or regulatory rules. Food vendors go where the demand is, if local regulations allow.  Walmart withdrew its 2011 application for a store, including a supermarket, in downtown Athens, Ga., because of protests against this “urban curse”. The property is now being developed as mostly apartment/condominium units – no supermarket.

This week, the Jackson (Ga.) Herald website reported Walmart has withdrawn its rezoning application with the City of Jefferson. In the comments section, one reader wrote, “I hate having to go all the way to Commerce just to get stuff cause Kroger doesn’t have what we need!”

One of the cures hyped for the modern “food desert is “urban farms.” It’s a verbal contradiction that experienced farmers – and urbanites – don’t understand. They are not conceived or operated as farms. Unlike urban farms, almost no rural farms begin with financial support of granting agencies and charities.

Even with financial help, urban farms have a difficult birth. In August 2011, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced a one-acre vacant lot across from City Hall would become “Trinity Avenue Urban Farm.” Walmart supplied a $25,000 reward for the best design. The deadline for submitting designs was November 2011. As of June 2015, according to news reports, no winner had been named, the website was defunct and contestants’ questions went unanswered by City Hall.

Rural farms have a singular purpose: Grow food or products for home use or sale. Urban farms have more goals than goods: sustainability, ecological improvement, community and youth involvement, leadership skills, improved nutrition, education, and as models for other urban farms.

An Atlanta Beltline “Urban Agriculture site” was begun in the Adair Park neighborhood in 2011 “with the goal of planting species of fruits, vegetables, trees, grasses, bushes and edible berries.” It would “function differently than a community garden” and “be managed by a qualified farmer with the goal of practicing sustainable land care techniques.” A bird habitat is also to be created. Another webpage update says this site “is a production farm … with the goal of helping to facilitate nutritional education in neighborhoods considered to be food deserts.”

One publication, “A Revitalization Plan for Atlanta’s Oakland City Neighborhood,” even declared urban agriculture “a key strategy for combating injustice in today’s food systems.” Food injustice is rarer than John Deere tractors – and hunger – in midtown Atlanta; in this context it must mean “anxiety” or “inconvenience.”

“Urban agriculture” can refer to anything from urban farms to personal and community gardens, commercial gardens, even farmers’ markets. Would urban agriculture involve items produced in rural areas? If so, it’s traditional agriculture with a new name.

Food deserts are where you find them and define them. Defined by distance to a source of food, most food deserts are rural. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2010 the median distance to a supermarket in urban areas was less than one mile. For rural areas it was 3.5 miles. An average of 1.5 percent of households in 10 metro Atlanta counties were without a car and more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store (2.3 percent for Fulton County). For eight rural counties, it was over 12 percent.

Urban farming is unlikely to create food oases in a sustainable way. It is an enterprise of the mostly unqualified, for the unmotivated, in an environment mostly unsuited.

Urban farms (gardens) will continue to be important to individuals who like to produce food for their families or for sale, as they always have. But they are not increasing dramatically, as so many urban agrarians claim. The National Gardening Association found 38 percent of U.S. households had food gardens in 1985; by 2010 it was 33 percent. The value of food produced in all gardens in 2008 is estimated at $2.5 billion, much less than 1 percent of what Americans spent for food that year.

The city is not for farming. People left rural farms in the 20th century, not because they wanted to farm in the city but because they didn’t want to farm. In one generation from 1940 to 1970, the Southern farm population decreased 80 percent. Martin Luther King Sr. wrote in his autobiography, “I hated farming” and left as soon as he could. Most others who left felt the same way or saw better opportunities in the cities.

Farm work is drudgery, monotonous, routine and demanding. Timeliness is essential. Social or charitable objectives can’t compete with getting the corn planted or the beans harvested on time. Rural farmers can’t depend on volunteers or trainees for any length of time. As for efficiency and productivity,  urban farms are left in the dust.

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of, “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 3, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.


4 thoughts on “Urban Farms: Unlikely Oases in Food Deserts

  1. The assertion that poor people in places without access to decent food are fat because of lifestyle choices is demeaning, insulting and – since inner city Atlanta neighborhoods are cited – racist. We all know what is being said here. It’s racist.
    And since when do rural farms not receive subsidies or financial assistance?
    And what exactly is the point of this article? What’s the goal? Dissuade people from attempting to right a wrong through creative thinking and hard work or just tell us that those ideals are stupid and ill conceived? Can we expect a follow-up article that offers some alternative solutions to the problem? Or are we saying here that there isn’t a problem?
    I hope this article was written electronically. I’d hate to think anyone wasted paper.

  2. Great article. “Urban farming is unlikely to create food oases in a sustainable way. It is an enterprise of the mostly unqualified, for the unmotivated, in an environment mostly unsuited.” Brilliant sentences.

    Living in Atlanta I see more of Mayor Reed’s waste of tax dollars pursuing “sustainability”. This is a main feature of President Obama’s policies to bankrupt the nation.

    I pray for a day I can drive to the supermarket in Atlanta without having to dodge car-killing pot holes.

    James H. Rust, professor

  3. President Obama’s policies to bankrupt the nation? Ahhhh, another fact denier. Did tinker bell and the tooth fairy tell you to say that? Do statistics mean anything? Either way the comment about urban farming being for the “unmotivated” is a tired old tirade of tired old white middle class men – of which I am one. And I live in a poor black inner city neighborhood and have for 23 years and i don’t see a lack of motivation here at all. I see people working very hard to have very little and I see young people having a very hard time finding opportunities. If there’s one thing I’ve learned living in Lakewood that I could share with my entitled, superior, intolerant white brothers it is this: believe what people tell you about their experiences. Black folks are right about everything they say is happening in their communities. I’ve quietly observed their disenfranchisement and even experienced it first hand because of my zip code (try to get a refi in a poor neighborhood or a repairman for your dishwasher or a dead dog removed from the street or just pizza delivery) It sucks to be disenfranchised and the least that compassionate people could do is make every effort to lend a hand. Even if you think that help is misguided it brings people to a common place and broadens understanding.
    But I would hate to think that planting some okra for an old black lady that can’t get to the store is somehow bankrupting our mighty nation. Tsk tsk. Shame on you “educated” gentlemen. How stupid you seem.

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