Health & Social Policy

Reducing Poverty One Plot at a Time

Urban agriculture is somewhat of a fad in Austin. Drive around in Hyde Park or on the Eastside, and you’ll see small plots behind houses, in empty lots, or near a restaurant, often with a sign advertising an organization that can help a neighborhood or household get their own garden started.

This isn’t unique to Austin either – other major cities in the United States are seeing a growth of urban agriculture. This is likely a result of the younger generation’s emphasis on locally-sourced, organic produce: Gardening your own food is the ultimate stand you can take against “big food” and the chemical and scientific advances used in farming today.

Urban farming has even popped up in South Africa: a January 27 article from South Africa’s newspaper Mail and Guardian covered the growth of urban agriculture in Capetown, listing numerous organizations that developed to support balcony and backyard farmers.

It’s more than a trend though. In Latin America, urban agriculture serves as a safety net for the impoverished, especially those living in informal settlements. Migrants to the city often find it difficult to transition to a lifestyle in which one is dependent on stores for food. Many of those moving to the cities today struggle to find employment or are underemployed and can’t afford to purchase food from stores or markets every day.

Their response is to set up orderly gardens in the space available around the house with a variety of plants. Urban gardens include vegetables, fruit, medicinal plants and plants for trading, like roses or other flowers. Families trade produce amongst themselves, supplementing what they can’t grow in their own garden from the gardens of their neighbors. Trade plants can be used to bring in money or to trade with a neighbor who has purchased something that can’t be grown, like meat or fish.

These networks of trading and sharing keep the urban poor of Latin America insulated from some of the worst economic shocks. Food can never be too scarce as long as the garden is producing. Also, a family that has hit rock bottom can rely on the relationships formed from years of sending produce to their neighbors, who will likely supply food given the knowledge that the family in need will reciprocate when necessary.

Urban gardening, then, is a crucial tool for combating poverty in a relatively inexpensive way. Providing food or funding community kitchens will help to eliminate hunger, but can’t provide anything near to the reciprocal relationships that the poor fall back on in times of need. Funding training programs and giving out seeds and young plants, on the other hand, bolsters those social networks and is far less expensive than constantly providing food.

This is not to say that policymakers can institute policies to support urban agriculture and then consider their work done. Other programs to combat hunger, such as the previously mentioned community kitchens, should be maintained as well, although urban agriculture should decrease the number of people those programs have to support.

Some nations have already begun to implement policies to support and expand urban agriculture, capitalizing on the fact that the practice already exists in major cities. Most notably, Brazil included an array of policies for urban gardening in Bolsa Família, the social welfare program that aims to eliminate the symptoms and the roots of poverty. In addition to policies directly impacting the supply of urban agriculture, it also includes policies that create a demand for any surplus that a household’s garden may produce, such as school lunch programs that require a quota of food to be purchased from Bolsa Família recipient farmers and urban gardeners.

Of course, integrating urban agriculture into the United States’ foreign aid programs is an obvious take-away point from the studies that show the impact that urban gardens have on poverty, inequality, health and even women’s rights. The more interesting question, however, is this: Do policies supporting urban agriculture have a place in our domestic programs to end hunger and combat poverty?

The for-profit organizations in cities like Austin and New York City have certainly had success in prompting citizens to take up gardening, although still on a relatively small scale. To understand whether gardening would be successful on a broader scale when targeted at a specific socioeconomic group, the United States should fund pilot programs in a few major cities across the nation in which they train impoverished families to garden and distribute seeds, plants and any other necessities a family may need to get started in gardening. These pilot programs would be essential to understand whether urban gardening can work in this context, as well as whether it yields a high benefit to participants, as it does in Latin America.

Urban agriculture will not be the magic bullet to end hunger and poverty in the United States – but it could be influential in increasing nutrition and decreasing reliance on traditional welfare programs.

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