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Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak
Recently, my neighborhood convened to discuss whether to host a weekly open air farmers market for producers from within 50 miles of our Central Pennsylvania town. After ironing out concerns about traffic, zoning and location, we decided to give it a go.
I’m proud of my community for committing to its support for local farmers and promoting food that travels fewer miles to reach our plates. I’m also aware of how lucky we are to have this option for easily obtaining fresh, nutritious food.
My town is far from hungry. Our residents have access to several grocery stores within a mile or two of our doorsteps. It is different just across the river in Harrisburg, where some neighborhoods qualify as “food deserts,” places people have little or no easy access to healthy food. Unfortunately, the city’s skyrocketing crime rate and financial problems overshadow this need.
Maybe food deserves higher billing, as is happening in Detroit, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and other cities across the nation. The same goes for down the road in Baltimore, where city officials realized that locally grown, accessible, fresh, organic, nutritious, food might alleviate many ills city residents face – obesity, poor nutrition, low quality of life and unemployment.
To advance this idea, in 2009 the City of Baltimore adopted a Sustainability Plan that lays the groundwork for dedicating land to agriculture and selling the harvests to customers at markets, schools, hospitals, restaurants and other places. The City of Baltimore is also rewriting its zoning code, referred to as Transform Baltimore, for the first time in several decades to include sustainability measures that identify suitable locations and proper conditions for implementing urban agriculture throughout the city.
It gets better.
There are already more than 60 food-producing community gardens and around a dozen urban farms already operating in Baltimore, including one owned by the city school district. The 33-acre Great Kids Farm operates as both an agricultural operation and living laboratory, serving hundreds of students from pre-kindergarteners to high school seniors who tend vegetables and fruit trees, and compost organic material and care for goats, chickens and honeybees – all in the name of learning, and a profit.
With help from teachers and volunteers, students market their produce through Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets and restaurant partnerships. Lessons learned at the farm complement classroom work and prepare students for careers in agriculture, hospitality, business, building, biology, engineering, environmental science and other fields.
Farms like this feed those without access to fresh and nutritious food. They provide an income for hard-working, entrepreneurial people; educate future leaders and land stewards; and generate revenue for cities with dilapidated properties crying out for a purpose.
Urban agriculture also reduces greenhouse gases emitted to transport food. Its green space improves air quality and absorbs runoff that would otherwise pollute local waterways.
Could something as basic as food help Pennsylvania’s ailing capitol city? Yes! In fact, this seed has already been planted thanks to a subtle but growing operation called Joshua Farm.
Since 2006, Joshua Farm has leased property vacated by the Harrisburg School District more than 20 years ago. Thanks to start-up funds from the city’s Department of Building and Housing Development and grants from banks, corporations and colleges, Joshua Farm now makes locally grown and organic produce more accessible and affordable to city residents, employs at-risk youth, and even turns a profit through a CSA, farm stands and partnerships with local festivals and restaurants.
According to an August 2011 article in Harrisburg’s Patriot News, the types of blighted and abandoned properties from which Joshua Farm emerged “destroy neighborhoods and reduce a community’s overall property values…pose a danger to the public’s health and safety…and cost cities like Harrisburg millions of dollars a year in lost property tax revenue.” Just think of what might be possible if Harrisburg provided incentives for entrepreneurial individuals or nonprofit organizations willing to transform some of these properties into productive parcels for the city.
Just last year, the City of Baltimore jump-started urban agriculture in this way by soliciting proposals from farmers interested in leasing one-acre vacant lots. To date, five farmers demonstrated the knowledge of the practical and business aspects of farming required for the leases. The city has identified as many as 40 acres that might eventually be farmed.
With more than 80 percent of the U.S. population living in metropolitan centers, urban farming has the ability to dramatically enhance economic growth, increase food quality and build healthier communities. Perhaps the way to a city’s heart is through its stomach. It’s worth a try.
Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.