Urban Waves of Grain

Growing Power
Participants in a Growing Power workshop learn about urban gardening.

In 2005, the world passed a threshold: the United Nations estimated, that for the first time in history, more than half of the human population lived in cities. Only a century ago, four out of five people lived outside of urban areas, many of them growing their own food. This shift away from the farm has resulted in health problems: obesity and diabetes in low-income areas are largely attributable to limited access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables.

A new movement is afoot to change the city-dweller’s relationship to food—turning backyards, empty lots, even the sides of buildings and the beds of pickup trucks into farmland. One of the leading proponents is a former basketball player whose parents were sharecroppers. In 1993, Will Allen bought the property of an old plant nursery in Milwaukee to convert it to farmland and bring local fresh food to low-income neighborhoods. The farm now feeds 10,000 local residents and supports 35 well-paid jobs.

Allen’s nonprofit, Growing Power, helps people grow, process, market, and distribute food in a sustainable manner. He is even taking on food waste: According to the USDA, about 96 billion pounds of food are thrown away in the United States each year. Allen uses the waste as compost for his fields and hopes to convert more into methane gas for fuel.

Although urban gardening isn’t a new idea—victory gardens were commonplace during World War II—the new movement appears to have grown from concerns about food security and hunger, increased interest in farmers’ markets and local, often organic foods, and farm-to-school efforts to serve healthier meals in cafeterias. It has taken off in recent years, becoming stylish and institutionally supported: Michelle Obama planted a kitchen garden at the White House, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture converted a lawn into a garden at its headquarters in Washington DC. Allen has received a MacArthur Fellowship to support his work.

The idea is expanding in North America: in 2008, Jesse Payne, a former software engineer, started Vegetable Patch, a company that farms urban yards throughout Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. Rather than mowing grass and filling landfills, people are harvesting vegetables and grains for the market. Although the company anticipates earning a modest $25,000 this year, the payoff is in the produce: participating homeowners get a weekly basket of food.

To keep farms as a central part of urban areas, Americans might take a tip from the Japanese. Urban development in Japan often leaves farm plots and rice fields intact, allowing cities to grow up around them: about 1.1 million hectares (roughly 2.5 million acres) of farmland persist in the country’s metropolitan areas, producing more than $28 billion worth of agricultural products each year. Even tiny backyards can have concrete-block terraces, creating microclimates for several crops. This efficient use of space means less time on the road for food, an intimate understanding of where it comes from, and, since we are what we eat, a smaller carbon footprint.