Growing Urban Success Stories

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March 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm

After listening to men in suits discuss financing options at the Family Farmed Expo Financing Farm to Fork Fair, hearing Brenda Palms Barber rhapsodize about bees and ex-felons was a breath of fresh air. Her not-for-profit company, Sweet Beginnings, trains ex-cons to tend the some of the least-beloved insects in the animal kingdom. For those of us in the know, however, bees are a foundation of much of our agricultural economy. And in the North Lawndale neighborhood where they buzz about their business making Beeline honey and cosmetics, they work with their human partners to provide jobs for those with criminal histories who have faced an even tougher time finding jobs in a post 9/11 world of stricter background screening.

As one of several “Urban Success Stories,” CEO Palms Barber is a dynamic and inspiring woman to observe. As she described how she’s used honey to reduce recidivism (in an area where more than half the released criminals return to prison, her program’s rate is in the single digits!), the notion of bringing the farm into the city seemed plausible.

Next to her sat Harry Rhodes of Growing Home, which operates two certified organic farms in Chicago. Growing Home trains and employs homeless people to raise crops, subsequently helping ease the food deserts that plague major regions of Chicago and other cities. By replacing what many Chicago residents consider local food (inexpensive junk food or fast food found nearby) with healthy produce, Growing Home may also impact the malnutrition- and obesity-related health problems that plague many inner-city minorities.

The term food desert is misleading. Certainly there is “food” available in these areas. What the term means is that inexpensive and healthy food is hard to find for many people. Too, poor nutrition/cooking knowledge among residents of deserts combined with little economic incentive for fresh produce vendors to sell in the area provide the one-two punch that drives desert inhabitants to eat food that is bad for them.

The term itself was popularized by Mari Gallagher. At the seminar, she elaborated on her consulting firm’s research showing causality between the distance a neighborhood sits from healthy, affordable food and the rates of nutrition-related disease. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to walk to a weekly farmers’ market. But as I sat in the audience listening to Mari, I considered how much time is the longest I would want to drive to buy fresh produce. 30 minutes? 45 minutes? At what point do I not bother any more? What if I had to take a bus and haul grocery bags on public transportation? What if it was late at night? I can appreciate that placating whiny children with a burger and fries or pizza can quickly become the simplest solution.

I’m fortunate that I don’t personally have to worry about it. But listening to these speakers talk got me thinking about the economics of healthy food. It’s been pointed out that our malnutrition and starvation problems are because we can’t get the food to where it need to go, as opposed to just not growing enough. Since our nation built canals and railroads two centuries ago to move crops from farms to cities, the (oversimplified) assumption has been that cities are for working and living and the country is for growing.

Growing Home and Sweet Beginnings need not be self-supporting to be successful. Their missions are to help those in need and support their communities. Can a farmer profitably grow crops in the city or suburbs? Most farms depend on mechanization and economies of scale combined with inexpensive labor to eke out a profit selling food.

In my next article, I’ll discuss the economics that rural organic farmers face, especially when urban boundaries sprawl outwards and drive real estate prices higher than crop prices can justify.

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One Comment

  1. shylo says:

    What fantastic stories. Thank you for sharing. Also, to whoever is Palms Barber’s photog: that is perhaps the most gorgeous photo I have seen in a month of Sundays.

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