Urban Farms: Unlikely Oases in Food Deserts

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 Herald website reported Walmart has withdrawn its rezoning application with the City of Jefferson.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.


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