by Jake Alcott
*DISCLAIMER: I want to make it clear that self-sustaining urban agriculture is not always a viable option for all individuals and is not a fix for poor city planning and systems designed to optimize speed and profit. This article is to help ease the burdens of living in these areas; the real problem is the systems already in place.*
Food to a community is freedom. Food to a community is power. To as many as 25.5 millions Americans, food is a luxury, to be controlled by private businesses and those of higher economic status. Food insecurity is then, what is left for low income families, unable to afford the healthy foods that many of us take for granted.
According to the USDA, a food secure house is one that has access to, at all times, enough food to support a healthy and active lifestyle. While the majority of households in the U.S. have the privilege to stay above this superficial line that determines the polarity of food secure and food insecure, this problem affects the entirety of our country. When a community is affected to this degree, it is indicative of wider scale problems; these problems range from things like national or international catastrophes such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, which saw unemployment numbers sore to an estimate of between 10-13%, to structural issues such as redlining.
Issues like these have a habit of recurring, and the people reading this likely don’t have the ability to prevent or change them. What you can do, however is something that will turn the tides in your favor and help to build communities, as well as put the power back into the hands of the individuals affected by food insecurity and food deserts. The methods that I am talking about, though there are many, all revolve around one thing: urban agriculture. Urban agriculture is the process of growing your own food, be it fruits, vegetables, legumes, or herbs, in an urban environment like a community garden, small yard, or inside your apartment (like I am doing now).
Urban agriculture represents a partial freedom to a lot of homes and communities; in areas designed to repress its inhabitants, independent produce cultivation can play a key role in increasing freedom over health and sustainability. These are some practices that I have seen and that have been helpful for certain communities:
Community gardens help to serve a community in multiple ways. Not only do they help to supplement the diets of the people using them, but they also build community through their collaborative nature. To truly benefit from a community garden, you must put in the time and effort if you are able to do so.
Becoming a part of these communities involves outreach and cooperation; many community gardens exist throughout the country and can be found as easily as googling them. It is important to remember with community gardens, these are intentionally set up for the community. Some people in the community will rely on them more than others so always ask yourself if what you're taking could be taking the opportunity from others.
Small Yard Gardening
Gardening in a small yard or plot of land in a city may seem daunting. There is a sacrifice to be made between space and what you want to grow. But given these limitations, there are practices developed with these constraints in mind. If your yard is big enough, raised beds are often the optimal choice for at home growers. Raised beds allow the grower to organize their crops, control their soil composition, and keep pests away with their above ground structure.
If your yard is too small for raised beds, simple containers can be used to optimize the limited space. These have the same benefits as the raised beds as far as pests and soil composition, but what you grow will have to be on a slightly smaller scale, depending on the container. Having a small yard also means that you can begin to practice different forms of composting. Composting comes in a variety of different ways including, myco-composting (using mushrooms to break down scraps), vermi-composting (using "Vermin" like worms to eat and digest scraps) or just leaving the scraps in covered piles to be broken down by bacteria. Compost is an incredible resource not only to nourish your garden, but to cut down on food waste as well. Be sure to do your due diligence before throwing scraps into the pile, not all things break down equally and will help nourish your garden!
Growing food in an apartment is a difficult task, and shares the same limitations and sacrifices as the small yard garden, but to a larger extent. As someone who only has an apartment garden, I can say, from experience, that it takes large chunks of your square-footage, though I don't mind. Food grown in apartments should be planned ahead of time, larger produce should usually be avoided because of lack of space and sunlight. Herbs and small vegetables like onions and garlic are ideal for apartments because of their size and ease of growing.
The key to growing food in an apartment is creativity. Usual pots and small beds won't fit in a typical living space, so containers like old bottles and food tubs are great to grow in. Be sure to avoid using cans and other metal receptacles due to the contamination that may occur in the soil.
Gourmet mushroom grow kits and microgreens are also a great option for indoor growing because of their compact size. Mushrooms also don't need the same amount of direct sunlight and will actually dry out depending on the species.
Urban agriculture is an important pursuit for many families and communities. Cities, especially in lower income areas, are laid out in such a way that discourages the availability of healthy and affordable foods. While urban agriculture is not a solution, it can be a way to ease the situation and supplement the diets of many people living in these food apartheid.