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Impact of Urban Gardening on Public Health: Analytical Essay

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Today, many people don’t know where the food they eat is coming from. Even if you are aware that your vegetables have traveled hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to get to your table, it is still difficult to find where that food originated from, and how safely or ethically it was grown. Recently, citizens have started to realize the dangers of industrial agriculture and the negative impacts it has on our health and the health of the earth. This system requires enormous amounts of energy and creates large greenhouse gas emissions. It also is extremely vulnerable to large-scale disruptions, such as major earthquakes. One alternative to the industrial agriculture model is Urban Gardening. Urban gardening is a growing movement that has seen many academics, gardeners, and citizens interested in growing their food locally. Many people are turning to Urban Gardening to address problems of hunger and nutrition as well as mitigate the damage from industrial agriculture on the environment. However, the question many have asked is, how much food can urban gardens actually produce, and who eats the food grown in these gardens? In addition, do urban gardens help citizens eat healthier, and what are the limits to an urban garden’s food production?

To help us understand how urban agriculture can increase food access among citizens, we can look at a study from the University of Pennsylvania. “This report summarizes research, all conducted in the summer of 2008, on the state of community and squatter gardens in Philadelphia, with a focus on the production and distribution of food. The specific aims of this project were to measure the amount of food grown in community gardens and to trace its distribution. (Philadelphia Pg.1)” In the summer of 2008, when this study was conducted, the 226 community gardens studied, produced an estimated $4.9 million worth of vegetables. These gardens produced over two million pounds of vegetables and herbs in one summer. Some of the most prevalent crops were tomatoes, cabbage, collards, beans, and squash (Philadelphia pg. 51). Despite producing a lot of vegetables and herbs, these gardens only occupied an area of approximately 60 acres. “This figure represents only about 1.87% of Philadelphia’s total vacant land inventory, which the most conservative estimates of city agencies put at some 1,790 acres. (Philadelphia pg. 49)” Imagine how much more food this city could produce if they used more than 1.87% of the land that could possibly be used for a garden. This helps prove that urban gardening can make a huge difference in food availability in a community, as locally grown vegetables and herbs could replace $4.9 million dollars’ worth of citizens grocery bills.

It’s great that these gardens are producing such abundant amounts of food, but it only matters if the people who need the food can access it. Philadelphia’s community and squatter gardeners are by and large generous people, who recognize the challenges of food access and related health and economic problems of one of the poorest big cities in America (Philadelphia pg. 53). The harvests are shared though formal (institutional) and informal (non-institutional) networks. This report states that distribution of produce from community and squatter gardens is particularly prevalent in the neighborhoods where people are poor. The most common recipients through non-institutional channels are neighbors, extended family, fellow church members, and children. The most common formal donation networks are institutions such as, Soup kitchens, Churches, Educational programs, and medical programs. In addition to programs that primarily focus on distributing food to those in need, there are a number of educational programs going on in these gardens. “Formal youth programs developed in recent years hold out the promise of engaging a new generation in gardening. They work principally in and with low-wealth communities, and they play important roles in feeding children during the day and teaching them about food and nutrition. (Philadelphia pg. 55)” These programs teach kids and families the importance of knowing where their food is coming from and how it is produced. It also teaches them practices such as organic gardening and healthy eating that they can share with their families and friends, along with the produce they grow.

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Urban Agriculture can provide access to healthy food and education for children in many communities in the U.S. like Philadelphia. I have seen urban gardens in cities like San Fransisco, Chicago, and Mexico City, and if gardens can be built and maintained in cities with as high of populations these, then they can be built anywhere. However, there are limits to how much food these gardens can provide. “First, urban agriculture today is sometimes dominated by already advantaged communities, despite urban agriculture’s historic association with diverse populations, including poor households, immigrants, and communities of color. (Justice)” Most of the time these gardens are being run by white wealthy citizens who have more money and power to create an urban garden even though these people won’t benefit from free produce as much as low-income minorities. This raises important questions about who benefits from public investments in urban agriculture programs. “A lot of times, organizations will use these poor communities and their statistics to get grants to do work that the community never wanted in the first place (Justice).” This is a huge problem as there are many people who need extra help with food security that are not represented in community gardens.

The lack of permanent land tenure is another challenge urban agriculture faces. Urban residents who do not own single-family homes with space for gardening face significant challenges in gaining long-term access to land for gardening. I have seen this struggle first hand in a community garden in Mexico City. The gardeners had been utilizing an area of land in the city for over five years now, and they still had no formal right to be there and recognized that they could lose their garden at any time. “In most cities across the United States and Canada, urban agriculture is typically considered a temporary use of land only, better than land being left vacant but with little protection from replacement by other future uses. Conflicts will always exist between the people who are actively gardening a space and those who stand to gain economically from a different use, particularly when the land is not permanently protected for urban agriculture and when the income that can be made from food cultivation is significantly less than what can be made from doing something else on the property. (Justice)”

In conclusion, urban gardening can have a major impact on a community’s access to healthy, locally grown produce. They provide a learning space for children and their families, and show them the importance of knowing where your food comes from and how it is grown. These gardens also help mitigate climate change, reduce urban heat island effect, improve air quality, attract pollinators into our cities, and create carbon sinks. In addition, urban gardening can help a city be greener, more beautiful, lead to improved mental health of residents. There are still many barriers that must be overcome for urban gardening to be a stable provider of food for low-income people, but there are already many great ideas out there. For example, to solve the issue of the lack of permanent land tenure, “One solution would be for cities to make vacant and unused public land available for urban farming under low-fee multiyear leases. (Altieri)”. This would benefit the city by gaining rent from these vacant public spaces and it would allow gardens more stability. I believe that the benefits of urban gardens greatly outweigh the challenges already, and many new ideas like this one will come along to help increase food security in our urban’s areas.

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