Urban Gardening – Fighting Food Insecurity in Food Deserts


David is a 6-year old boy. He goes to school each day, trying his best to learn and to make friends. His mom works very hard, and encourages him to do well in school, but David just can’t seem to focus most days – his belly hurts by the time he gets on the school bus in the morning. Today, the teacher is showing them new vocabulary words, but he can’t hear her over the sounds of his stomach growling. Being hungry makes David feel tired and grumpy, too. When Julian bothers him he gets angry, and is sent out of the classroom. He misses the lesson, but he didn’t understand anyway – he was too hungry. He feels better after he eats the free lunch he gets at school, but by the time he gets on the bus to go home, his belly is asking for food again. David hopes there will be dinner tonight, but he is not sure. Perhaps there will be a frozen or fast food meal after his mom finishes her long shift– but there is a good chance he will have to wait until tomorrow to eat again.

Although David is a made-up character, his story is all too real for many children. Around the world, about 820 million people – 1 in 9 – are affected by food insecurity (1). Food insecurity is a lack of reliable access to the quality and quantity of nutritious food that allows for a healthy and active lifestyle. The effects of hunger are wide-reaching and can impact individuals and communities long after the food insecurity is addressed – if it is ever addressed at all. Childhood food insecurity and hunger is especially troubling, as prolonged hunger can not only stunt growth, but also reduce a child’s potential (2). Being hungry prevents healthy development of brain and body, leading to misbehavior, poor social development, and learning difficulties.

Technically, enough food is produced globally for every person in the world to have enough to eat. However, there are still major inequities in the availability of food for all people.

Some parts of the world are more affected than others. For example, in 2016, 27.7 percent of the population of Africa was reported to be severely food insecure (3). Although more prevalent in less developed areas, wealthier nations are not immune.

It is estimated that in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, around 1 in 8 people – about 12.3% - are food insecure (4). Simultaneously, 30-40% of food in the US is thrown away, either in the form of uneaten food in our homes or expired food in grocery stores and restaurants – enough food to feed every hungry person in the world.

The solution to food insecurity is not as simple as redistributing the potentially wasted food around the world to those in need. It is a complex issue, involving economic, social, and political factors. Many organizations around the world fight hunger through food banks, and some governments provide supplementary grocery money to low-income households. However, these programs rarely address one of the key aspects of food insecurity: access to fresh, quality nutritious food. Food banks seldom have fresh produce in sufficient quantities to support their communities, and families receiving government benefits might not have transportation to access a grocery store with fresh produce and proteins. Places where a grocery store or supermarket with fresh produce and lean meats is more than a mile away is considered a food desert (4). These nutritional assistance programs, while invaluable to the families that utilize them, are unable to mitigate the full effects of living in a food desert.

Food deserts are usually found either in the inner city where it is too expensive or logistically challenging for grocery stores to be built, or in rural areas where the population is too small to support a grocery store. They also tend to be largely populated by low-income individuals, many of whom do not have cars, and in places where access to public transportation may be limited. As a result, many residents are forced to rely on gas stations and convenience stores for food, most of which have few, if any, healthy options. In order to encourage the establishment of grocery stores in food deserts or improve public transportation from food deserts to established markets, policies and infrastructure must be changed – not a quick or easy solution.

One method of reducing the effects of food insecurity in urban areas - especially within food deserts - is the establishment of community gardens. Community gardens are areas where food is grown by and for the community, using a wide variety of growing methods. These gardens can be established in abandoned lots or old industrial areas, at existing parks or community centers – anywhere there is space. When properly tended, these gardens can have very high yields. Detroit, Michigan – considered the birthplace of the modern urban community gardening movement – can produce nearly 182,000 kg of produce annually across its network of over 1,300 community gardens, enough to feed over 600 people. A single 2.75 acre community farm in Brooklyn, New York grows over 18,000 kg a year on average for residents (5). France, an international leader in creative efforts to become increasingly environmentally friendly, has launched an effort to dramatically increase urban gardening in its capital, Paris. It allows gardeners to plant anywhere in the city they would like, with a 3-year renewable permit. By the end of this year, they aim to devote 100 hectares to green roofs and other green spaces – a large portion of which will host vegetable gardens with which to feed the city (6).

There are other benefits as well. Gardening has been proven to significantly reduce stress and burns up to 500 calories an hour. Tending to gardens also bonds community members, instills pride, and cultivates valuable life skills for all ages. Growing fresh food within communities also has a positive impact on the environment, as it reduces the carbon footprint that would otherwise be associated with the transportation of these crops, and encourages practices such as community composting, which further reduces emissions. If urban agriculture became implemented fully in cities around the world, it could yield around 10 percent of global production crops like legumes and vegetables (7). Urban gardens also provide ecosystem services, such as reducing harmful stormwater runoff, nitrogen fixation and saving energy overall.

Food insecurity is a complex public health issue, and although community gardens are not likely to solve it single-handedly, they have the potential to make a major impact in the areas they are implemented. It is estimated that by 2050, 70 percent of all people worldwide will live in urban areas, so growing food in cities will be important for keeping up with demand for food and making communities more resilient to crises that interfere with production and transport of goods. By establishing urban community gardens, we can work together to fight food insecurity while making our cities cleaner, greener, and more sustainable overall.

References 1) https://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2019/june/who-are-the-world-s-food-insecure-identifying-the-risk-factors-of-food-insecurity-around-the-world/

2) https://www.nokidhungry.org/sites/default/files/child-economy-study.pdf

3) https://www.worldhunger.org/africa-hunger-poverty-facts-2018/#:~:text=Approximately%2027.4%25%20of%20the%20population,%25%20(FAO%2C%202017)

4) https://www.feedingamerica.org/about-us/press-room/new-data

5) https://www.feedthechildren.org/pages/change-your-habits-change.html?gclid=CjwKCAjwltH3BRB6EiwAhj0IUJV42W3zwm-L0DQN2Yk0SptR1hUimY7TmuJ7bCQ_51Z-oRexvYHy2xoCkbkQAvD_BwE

6) https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-are-food-deserts-4165971

7) https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-15/scholars-estimate-the-global-potential-of-urban-farming

8) https://www.cntraveler.com/story/paris-will-soon-be-filled-with-urban-gardens