Can small-scale local food production really increase a city’s food security?

Throughout this summer, I’ve struggled with the following question:

How can local food production spaces (e.g. urban/peri-urban farms, community farms/gardens*, and people’s home gardens) that don’t produce significant amounts of food (for individual households or through other retail channels) increase a city’s food security? Can they?

Through this blog post, I’ll focus on how/why/if community farms and people’s home gardens can increase a city’s food security. (In my next blog post, I’ll focus on how/why/if non-production focused farms can increase a city’s food security.)

In a prior blog post, I touched upon one critical experience I had in Budapest, which made me question a major component of my summer research–studying community gardens. A key leader in the development of many Budapest community gardens blatantly stated to me during his interview–my first interview in Budapest–that community gardens are not part of the city’s “food system.” (So what was I doing studying community gardens if my research is focused on local food systems?)

Now, I’ll copy and paste some of my own pre-determined research definitions to justify how all sorts of organizations, businesses, and individual activities I’m studying this summer are central to answering my research question…

  • Food system: “an interconnected web of activities, resources, and people that extends across all domains involved in providing human nourishment and sustaining health, including production, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, consumption and disposal of food. The organization of food systems reflects and responds to social, cultural, political, economic, health and environmental conditions and can be identified at multiple scales, from a household kitchen to a city, county, state or nation” (Grubinger et al. 2010).
  • Food supply chain: “A series of food-related activities including production, processing, packaging, transport, distribution, consumption, and disposal (DiDominica, 2014).
  • Local food system (LFS): Local food systems are complex socio-ecological systems encompass food production, processing, and sales within a defined geographical area (Balász 2012). However, given the vastly different characteristics of the cities in question, the exact radius around each city center within which agricultural production is considered “local” will vary greatly. Often, LFS can be best defined by what they are not, or characterized in contrast to complex, long food supply chains that span within and across countries. They are also often “oriented towards a sustainability that is multidimensional: economic, environmental, and social” (Corrado 2014).

But back to what I’ve done in the cities I’ve visited this summer. As their name hints at, most community gardens in Budapest are founded upon the ideals of community development rather than food production. My research on urban, citizen farming in Tokyo—which largely takes place on business-run, citizen farms on commercial rooftops—reiterated to me how non-farmers’ farming activities in cities produce a relatively small amount of food at a relatively high personal cost. Before that, in Kampala, I was repeatedly reminded—often in a condensing tone—how urban agriculture comprises less than 5 percent of the city’s food supply.

Nonetheless, up to this point, I’ve recognized many reasons why urban residents growing even a small amount of food can help ensure their food security, in both the short- and long-term. Growing one’s own food in a city can provide urban residents with highly nutritious foods that they might otherwise not have access to (Kampala). It can be a key avenue through which parents teach their children about the importance of taste, freshness, health, and safety of the foods they choose to eat (Budapest and Tokyo). Urban farmers may also gain greater regard and respect for “professional” farmers with sustainable production practices, such as local, organic farmers (Tokyo). Those urban residents then might be more willing to pay a premium to support those sustainable farmers (e.g. buy local, organic food), which helps build and ensure a sustainable, secure food system that provides enough affordable, accessible, healthy, and safe food to urban residents. More generally, farming can be very therapeutic and a key means through which urban residents maintain their health and happiness: by connecting with the land and with other people.

Ultimately, however, community gardens alone are not sufficient to ensure a city’s food security in the face of drastic political, economic, environmental, or health disasters.

I discussed this matter with Darren Tan, of Singapore’s pioneering rooftop farm Comcrop. Comcrop is one of Singapore’s few, active, successful rooftop farms. It was the first rooftop farm to receive its official farming license, and its employees have worked closely with multiple government bodies to shift Singapore’s farming policies to be more conducive to the creation of other rooftop farms.

 

In regard to community farms’/gardens’ potential to ensure a city’s food security, Tan described to me quite eloquently what I’ve been trying to type up for the past few weeks now. So, I’ll let his words shine here rather than my own confuddled brain thoughts I can’t seem to articulate as well as he did.

Tan explained to me that, of course, as a farm, Comcrop’s most basic goal is to produce food. He described how first, Comcrop seeks to provide nutritious food for its adjacent community members and second, Comcrop aims to be a place where people come together. In fact, that second goal of Comcrop’s is rooted in its beginnings as a community farm. I asked Darren why Comcrop transitioned from a community farm to a commercial farm, and he explained the following:

“It was clear that as a community farm, we were never going to be able to provide for the community—based on donations, based on goodwill, based on a few people coming in to help every day. It was not a sustainable means of food production. And ultimately [transitioning to become a commercial farm] tied in with our ultimate goal, which is to produce food. I that the logical transition was to become a commercial farm. And of course, we still tried to embody all the values that we had as a community farm.”

Darren continued, “It’s nice to say that you want to get everybody to grow their own food. But coming from a farmer’s perspective… firstly, that’s not going to go down well with all people. Secondly, I know the time they will spend trying to grow their own food could be better spent with a few people really trying to grow intensively. So, I’m not against growing food for yourself. But I don’t think that how society is going to evolve into one where everybody grows their own food. As space becomes a luxury, then it’s going to be quite difficult for the different farms [the commercial farms] to increase their productivity to cater to Singaporeans.”

As an urban farmer in Singapore, Darren has experienced and responded directly to challenges caused by Singapore’s limited, conventional agricultural land, the government’s intransigent agricultural policies, and the country’s high rate of imports. While Darren’s perspective may influenced by Singapore’s extreme context, it’s one that I share very closely. As a researcher, I have tried my best to remain neutral on the subjects I ask my interviews about. Yet honestly, because of that, it was especially refreshing to hear what Darren described as Comcrop’s greatest challenge.

“I think our greatest challenge is awareness,” he said. “So, there is some movement about growing your own food. There will be of course awareness about the need for sustainability, but the nuances of those are usually not explored in detail. So, for example, when you say a local farm, there are many small groups saying that they are local farms. But then when you look at it, what are they producing, what are they producing for, how much are they producing? And I mean, does it make economic sense—are they able to sustain themselves in the long run? I mean, those are questions which people don’t often ask. I won’t disagree that just being aware of local farms is good. But I think as the understand of the need for these things evolve, we should also start thinking about what constitutes the farms that we want to support. I don’t believe anyone ever sets up to not be productive, but the way they go about it could be quite different. So I think it’s quite important that people don’t just say, ‘For health reasons, I should buy organic.’ Or say, ‘I should just support local because I’m patriotic.’ It’s not just that. It’s something bigger. I mean, a lot of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, is because of our needs as a country… also as responsible people, and those are things I think it’s good to see. Really, it’s nice to say that you want to get everyone to grow your own food, but coming from a farmer’s perspective, I know that firstly, that’s not going to go down well with all people…”

As I begin to write my final report, I’ve struggled to figure out how to best analyze people’s opinions in a proper researcher-like manner. It’s been hard for me to determine where my opinions fit, where what I think are opinions are actually valid, objective statements, and if I can just transcribe all my interviews and publish them like that?…

Back to my initial question:

How can community gardens and people’s home gardens, which don’t produce significant amounts of food, increase a city’s food security? Can they?

And a recap/answer in the form of a table:

Community farms/people growing their own food can… Who does this affect? What aspect of food security does this increase? Where did I learn/observe this
Increase people’s health through providing access to specific, otherwise inaccessible/unaffordable nutrients (e.g. protein from chickens and eggs, vitamins found in vegetables) People who cannot afford to purchase meat and vegetables nutrients Accessibility/affordability (2), Nutrition (3) Kampala
Increase people’s health/safety through providing access to fruits and vegetables produced without pesticides People who cannot afford food with dependable organic certifications/that consumers are sure is free of harmful pesticide residues Food safety (4)?

This one is debatable

Singapore, Japan
Teach children about the importance of healthy good; get children to like eating healthy food Children; children who don’t like vegetables Nutrition (3) Budapest, Tokyo, Singapore
Reduce people’s grocery budgets or allow people to spend more on more healthy food People who (successfully) grow crops that are expensive in supermarkets, e.g. tomatoes; people who have the time/knowledge/financial resources to successfully grow these high value crops Affordability (2), Nutrition (3) Tokyo, Singapore
Make people more aware of/concerned about/interested in local food and therefore willing to pay the big bucks for or otherwise contribute to the development local/organic/fair-trade/etc. food Future generations/all people who will benefit from the existence of that local/organic/fair-trade/etc. food in the future Yes, this may seem like an indirect means to increase a city’s food security, but if a well-developed local food system does increase people’s food security (see table rows above), then increased consumer support of local food systems should generally increase all aspects of a city’s food security Kampala, Budapest, Tokyo, Singapore

And since this is my blog, not my research report, here’s my opinion:

Community farms are cool. It is difficult for them to stay financially and politically viable if there are no paid employees and/or they are not recognized by the government. “Community” farms where people have to pay ~$1000 membership fees per year are less cool (AKA less accessible), yet they are more likely to survive.

It’s also cool when people have kitchen/balcony/backyard farms. Home gardens can provide most of the same benefits that community gardening can, but it can also have similar drawbacks. For example, people often put more time/energy/financial resources into their gardens then they get out of them. Sometimes, that’s alright, because gardening provides individuals, households, and communities with far more benefits than the agricultural yields. Yet community and home gardening can also both have cost barriers to entry and knowledge barriers to successful farming.

Beyond providing certain, vulnerable communities with direct access to specific nutrients or organic food they may otherwise not have access to, I think the greatest potential for community and home gardens to increase a city’s food security is by how they can increase consumers’ agricultural education and awareness of relevant social, environmental, and political issues. Ultimately, however, consumers’ awareness is only the beginning of a chain of steps that must occur to help foster the growth of local food systems that can increase a city’s food security. Beyond community or home gardens, city governments, businesses, and social organizations must provide residents with the appropriate knowledge base and resources so consumers can use their dollars, time, and voices to promote the development of financially viable, agriculturally productive, environmentally friendly, and socially just local food systems.

Here’s what I’m hinting at:

Non-farmer, urban residents join a community garden or begin farming at home –>

they learn how to farm, they become interested in where their other food comes from –>

they gain awareness about environmental and social issues caused by traditional agricultural production/food systems –>

they become educated on the nuanced benefits and drawbacks of local vs. non-local food  –>

they become more conscious food consumers –>

they foster the development of more sustainable, production-focused, local food systems –>

they increase their city’s food security.

But still, the question remains: Do local food organizations with high agricultural yields (i.e. production-focused urban and peri-urban farms) increase a city’s food security?

For the sake of ending this blog post, I’ll save that one for later.

 

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  • *I will use the terms ‘farm’ and ‘garden’ interchangeably throughout this post. Where I write ‘garden,’ I mean a garden where the majority of the crops are edible.