54 Million People in the U.S. May Go Hungry During the Pandemic — Can Urban Farms Help?
By Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner
When I call Chef Q. Ibraheem to discuss urban farming in her own cooking career, she's in the middle of placing an order for microgreens from a small farm in Lake Forest, a ritzy suburb just north of downtown Chicago. Now's a great time for her to chat, actually, because the Chicago-based chef is immersed in what she loves, sourcing ingredients as locally as possible.
"It's really important we know where our food is coming from," she says. "I know my farmers by name. I can go to the farms, see how they are growing everything, see it in the soil. It's always nice to have something within reach and know your produce." Chef Q runs supper clubs and chef camps throughout Chicagoland, sustaining the local economy by purchasing ingredients from urban gardens and farms within miles of her pop-up experiences.
"As a chef, you realize you have a responsibility to your guests," she says, and for her, that responsibility means being transparent about ingredients, and even educating diners about what's on their plates. Growing up spending summers on a farm in Georgia, Chef Q has an innate curiosity about where and how her food is grown, and she recognizes the importance of farms in both urban and rural areas.
Commercial urban agriculture is on the rise, with small-scale farms in New York City like Gotham Greens, which reduces the amount of energy, land use and food waste in tight, underutilized spaces to produce herbs and roughage for the masses. In Austin, Texas, backyard farms and urban gardens sell ingredients to restaurants and markets throughout the region, as do similar projects in Los Angeles. In fact, innovations allowing farmers to grow without soil or natural light expand the potential for food sourcing in urban areas. Urban farming has increased by over 30 percent in the past 30 years, with no indication of slowing down. Urban land could grow fruit and vegetables for 15 percent of the population, research shows.
While the COVID-19 lockdowns have inspired a burst of urban farming as people have been starting to grow their own fruits and vegetables at home, a renewed interest in culinary arts, plus a nostalgia for simpler times in many fast-paced big cities — just look at all the mid-century-era diners popping up in Manhattan right before the pandemic — may be accountable for the steady rise in urban farms. More consciousness about the environment, too, may lead small growers to want to reduce transportation emissions and take charge of the use of pesticides and fertilizers in their foods, but there's another great reason for urban farms to continue growing: feeding the masses. And with 68 percent of the world's population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, it's time to take urban farming seriously as a viable, primary food source.
Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, the United States had more than 37 million people struggling with hunger in 2018. Since the pandemic, that number is expected to rise to up to 54 million people. And while systemic changes may one day be able to greatly reduce this number, a planting cycle is quicker than an election cycle. Bureaucracy may not immediately solve fair wages, but vegetable seeds may help communities when times are tough.
Urban Farming as a Social Practice
In her work, Chef Q has helped turn empty lots and abandoned buildings into urban farms, which allows neighbors to "take ownership in their communities" and also become educated consumers. In neighborhoods where the fancy grocery store is referred to as "Whole Paycheck," Chef Q has seen seed exchanges help folks start growing new produce, and regain agency over their food budgets and eating habits. Programs like the Chicago Food Policy Summit, a free annual event on Chicago's South Side, help popularize urban farming and education and help provide Chicagoans with grants to start growing their own food. Though gentrification may bring relief to previously dubbed food deserts — neighborhoods without a nearby source of fresh food — the slew of problems attached to gentrification, including higher costs of living, can easily make these new, more nutritious food options completely unaffordable to residents of the neighborhood.
As seen in smaller cities, urban farming may be the key for cities to be less reliant on rural areas, and also help achieve food security. As Dr. Miguel Altieri, professor of agroecology at the University of California, Berkeley, has shown, diversified gardens in urban areas can yield a large range of produce and efficiently feed nearby residents.
Of course, land in cities is often at a premium, with many people living in little space. Shifting public land use to incorporate food growth and getting creative with rooftops, basements and unused buildings can seriously change the way cities consume fresh ingredients.
In fact, renewed efforts by the conservation organization World Wildlife Fund to boost indoor farming may revolutionize some sources of produce, particularly in cities. Repurposing unused indoor space, such as warehouses, can create direct sources of ingredients for restaurants or community-supported agriculture for neighbors. Indoor farming, while potentially more expensive, also allows urbanites from all walks of life to connect to the food system, repurpose food waste into compost and expand knowledge on growing food. Greenhouses like Gotham Greens' rooftop spaces can supplement indoor and outdoor spaces, adding even more potential healthy food to local ecosystems.
Urban Gardening With Neighbors in Mind
When she's not hosting pop-up dinners with culinarily curious Chicagoans, Chef Q volunteers with Foster Street Urban Agriculture, a nonprofit garden that aims to help end food insecurity in Evanston, the Chicago suburb home to Northwestern University. In the garden, Chef Q teaches kids how to water, plant, weed and grow produce. She'll notice a multigenerational interest: "Once kids taste zucchini, it's over," she jokes, of little ones bringing in parents and grandparents to learn to cook with more fresh produce. "They'll start [the program] eating hot Cheetos, and they're eating something green and leafy and won't go back."
Kids also just love being able to eat something that comes out of the ground and will take their passion back home, growing tomatoes in their windowsills or trying other small gardening projects in spaces available to them near home. Harvests from Foster Street are donated to food pantries and also sold at a local farmers market, where kids learn community-based entrepreneurial skills.
"Everyone eats, it's a common denominator," she says. "When food is on the table, people will have conversations."
Now, in the wake of COVID-19, urban farms have become more essential than ever. Chef Q has partnered with farms that would otherwise throw away produce without their major restaurant and hotel clients, to redistribute food to Chicagoans in need. She's noticed a spike in the price of fresh food, thanks in part to the expensive early May crops — peas, leeks and spinach. "It's been imperative," she says, of feeding the community with a local bounty of eggplant, microgreens, cheese and more farm-to-fork provisions.
Chef Q emphasizes that urban gardens still have to grow food to feed communities. Across the nation, we've seen victory gardens pop up in yards of homebound upper-middle-class Americans, planted with hope, thriftiness and a creative outlet in mind. But for those who don't have yards or ample space, shared urban gardens can still serve a local population. When people don't have money, growing food is a solution to provide nutrition, and perhaps even income. And it starts with advocacy, volunteers and outreach. "Plant something in the windowsill," Chef Q suggests, as an entryway into small-scale gardening. "It's essential. We can't stop."
Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in New York. She is a writing fellow at Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She's written for the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Glamour, AlterNet, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, Architectural Digest, Them and other publications. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Columbia University and is also at work on a novel. Follow her on Twitter: @melissabethk.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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