Why Urban Agriculture – Part II

Yesterday, I took issue with the relationship of urban agriculture to the social, economic and environmental justice issues that need to be addressed in many of the communities where these projects are located.  I want to continue that conversation in this post, focusing on what I think is the most problematic aspect of urban agriculture from a food justice perspective: economics.

I spoke with one leader of a Massachusetts urban agriculture project about my concerns in this area, and he was quite blunt: his project is not about addressing food access in the community where he works (as well as being a long-term resident).  He firmly believes that his project can make a significant contribution to community food security and resiliency when the time comes that we can no longer rely on our far-flung food system to provide for us, as the unsustainable global food system is well on its way to a breakdown.  At the same time, he was very clear that in order to meet his nearer-term goal of building a successful agriculture business that could provide living wages for its employees, he needed to make money – and that wasn’t going to happen by selling food at the price point that would make it affordable for the neighborhood residents struggling most with food insecurity.  I wasn’t very encouraged by the answer, but I appreciated his forthrightness about a question that the urban ag advocacy community is largely avoiding.

Urban agriculture is an incredibly expensive way to grow food within our current system.  That doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t do it. As another participant at the Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference pointed out in a panel Q&A, conventional agriculture is also pretty expensive, but is heavily subsidized – not only in actual cash but also in the public regulatory system; transportation and other infrastructure that is publicly maintained; and externalized social and environmental costs that keep conventional food “cheap.”  Since the real costs of conventional agriculture are dispersed and well-hidden, one could argue very successfully that urban agriculture is no less expensive and perhaps much less costly for our works than the other kind.  Unfortunately, urban ag businesses aren’t operating in an economic system that pays any attention to full-cost accounting, so they have to do what makes the most sense in the current economic framework.

That means selling pricey produce to “high-end” customers: restaurants, upmarket food retailers, and affluent farmers market and CSA customers. This is especially true of for-profit urban ag enterprises, but even their nonprofit colleagues usually end up with the same model; if your urban farms are meant to be a “social enterprise,” the pressure is high to move toward financially self-sustaining options that will produce revenue for other parts of the organization. This is often positioned as a way to keep funding the charitable work (such as education, job training or food donations to local shelters) that does provide more direct community benefits. Yet very few urban farms become cash cows that can contribute large amounts of profit toward reliably sustaining programs that are revenue negative but community impact positive.

As a result, urban agriculture initiatives end up replicating some of the same mind-blowing distortions found in the conventional system.  The places where food is grown are the same places where food insecurity is high and increasing; those who live right next to the food can’t afford to purchase it, and they go hungry.  If an urban agriculture initiative provides jobs to local residents at living wages, then you may be able to avoid the tragic irony of people who actually produce the food being unable to afford their own product. But that’s a huge “if;” it’s not at all a given that urban agriculture jobs are primarily held by members of the community where the work is taking place, and even a living wage might not be enough to afford the retail and restaurant establishments that carry local produce.

Under these conditions, urban agriculture becomes another extractive business type moving into low-income communities and communities of color; the community’s resources are claimed and harvested to produce health and wealth for others. The idea of urban ag as an unjust resource extraction model might shock, if not outright offend, its practitioners and advocates. And while there are cases where someone is unashamedly taking an extractive approach, most proponents of urban agriculture are sincere in their desire to support and sustain urban communities through their initiatives. If we want to make good on our intentions, we will need some new ways of doing business.

Achieving community justice through urban agriculture is not impossible; but it is not automatic, and will not happen without some fundamental rethinking of the broader system and principles we use to operate. My earlier post on farmers markets also touched on this systems question, and many of the same issues arise when discussing urban agriculture. We cannot expect these interventions, however well-intentioned, to achieve justice goals in an unjust framework. We need to start thinking about and setting up the self-reinforcing systems that make justice more possible. This is incredibly difficult work on top of the already difficult work of growing in the city; yet it is essential if justice is our goal.

And if justice isn’t our goal in urban agriculture, then it’s time to be upfront and say so. Using communities of color and low-income communities as the poster children for initiatives that don’t really serve them is just another in a long line of exploitative practices. Whatever our goals are as a movement, we need to express them honestly and work towards them with integrity.

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