Food Security in the Urban Forest
November 14, 2015
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that by 2030, five billion people will live in urban environments. As the disconnect from the rural agrarian society to the industrialized urban gray-scape grows, so does the number of people marginalized and undernourished. That number is quickly approaching 805 million (Vira 2015), and to this the United Nations Secretary General encourages a goal to end global hunger by 2025. Can we make the "Zero Hunger Challenge" in 10 years? It may take a refreshed look at the content of our urban forests.
Eating locally grown food has become a catch phrase among the health conscious middle and upper class Americans over the past decade. There are not many reasons why it wouldn't (Royte 2015). After all, the food tastes better, arrives fresher, and has the ideological benefits of a decreased carbon footprint, less insect pressure due to diversity trends, and support of the local farmer, who in theory is our neighbor.
The reality of this however is that the farmer lives in a completely different, often marginalized, neighborhood, or not in the city at all. To make ends meet, a more lucrative option is to sell the local produce to restaurants, which are again eaten by at least the middle-class. Community Supported Agriculture programs help. Many take second jobs, offer training programs in popular topics such as beekeeping, and rent their rooftop farm for wedding photos. That is what Brooklyn Grange Farm in New York City does, and it seems to work, for now.
In poorer cities, such as Detroit, however, people are growing vegetables and planting fruit trees for survival. At least 400,000 pounds of produce is grown, an amount that could feed 600 people, or 0.086% of the population. Philadelphia raises 2 million pounds. It sounds like a lot, but it would actually only feed about 0.2% of the population. From one farm alone in Brooklyn, 40 thousand pounds are provided for lower income families in Red Hook (Royte 2015). There are of course non-monetary reasons to garden. These urban farms rely on a lot of volunteer hours, charitable donations of seeds, and a cherished sense of community. Social gardening has psychological benefits for elders and gives connection to their grandchildren. It also encourages neighborhood pride through stewardship, which builds community and lessens crime. However, in general, urban food production is, in the United States, still considered a nicety, instead of a nutrient-dense necessary component of a healthy city.
Food for the Cities, an international organization is hoping to speak to municipalities about making urban farming more sustainable. They see it as "a key component of urban poverty alleviation" (Diouf). Funding however is still an issue. Young farmers are trying to make it work, most likely on their own dime, and standard loan companies, focused on maximum returns, are often skeptical to lend. The Fair Food Network offers microloans, and a variety of grants are available, often with convoluted application processes. Meanwhile, community garden plots lay in disrepair, full of weeds, with worn-out gardeners, who cannot seem to fit the project into their busy schedule.
A few have decided to grow their fruit trees on the city's dime, or rather the city's tree. Across America ornamental fruit trees line boulevards, offering spring beauty & summer shade, without the autumn mess. Onto the branches, renegade agriculturists are grafting fruit producing branches. Tara Hui, the founder and principal grafter at Guerrilla Grafters in San Francisco, says, "I would love to walk within the confines of the law" (2011). ‘Love to' and ‘do' are two different things in her case. She and her cohorts have, by 2013, grafted onto 50 of San Francisco's 10,000 ornamental trees (Simon, 2013), a practice that is considered vandalism and could possibly violate patent laws. Sometimes they receive encouragement from more progressive businesses next to the street trees, but it remains a covert operation, a labor of love. Utilizing color coated electrical tape, they monitor the grafts, assign a steward for each tree, and marvel in the presence of a single fruit,
In the wake of the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which call for "the integration of food production across forests and landscapes" (Vira, 2015), perhaps it is time to take a closer look not only at the urban forest, but the urban farm and urban fruit forest. The UN policy brief states very clearly "Managing resilient and climate-smart landscapes on a multi-functional basis that combines food production, biodiversity conservation, other land uses and the maintenance of ecosystem services should be at the forefront of efforts to achieve global food security" (Vira, 2015). It sounds good, but until the funding becomes a tangible reality, and antiquated laws are reassessed, the urban farm may go hungry.
Diouf, Jacques. Food for the Cities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: Rome, Italy.
Guerrilla Grafters. Website http://www.guerrillagrafters.org/ San Francisco, CA. 2015
Guerrilla Grafters: Splicing Fruit-Bearing Branches Onto City Trees. Fair Companies. Fair Companies: San Francisco, CA. Nov. 13, 2011.
Hunter, Elise. Where is the Funding in Detroit's Farm-to-Fork Movement? Huffington Post: Detriot, MI. July 23, 2013.
Morgan, Dan, Gilbert Gaul and Sarah Cohen. Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don't Farm. The Washington Post Company. July 2, 2006.
Royte, Elizabeth. Urban Farming is Booming, but What Does it Really Yield? Food & Environment Reporting Network. April 27, 2015
Simon, Terri. Guerrilla Gardeners Unplugged. Urban Dirt. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service: Houston, TX. March 2013.
United States Department of Agriculture https://afsic.nal.usda.gov/farms-and-community/urban-agriculture . October 26, 2015.
Vira, Bhaskar, Christoph Wildburger and Stephaie Mansourian. Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition: Contributing to the "Zero Hunger Challenge". Policy Brief. International Union of Forest Research Organizations, Volume 33. ISBN 978-3-902762-41-2. May 6, 2015.