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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3


Greening urban food deserts through local agriculture

On March 25, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) introduced HR 4971, the Greening Urban Food Deserts Act. The act would establish a new office in the Department of Agriculture to help increase local agricultural production and fresh food availability especially in underserved communities experiencing hunger, poor nutrition, obesity, and food insecurity.

“Food deserts” are areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. In many U.S. cities and rural areas, economic, demographic and land use changes over the past 50 years have created communities where supermarkets are non-existent and where poor quality food, limited choices, and lack of affordable food impact large segments of the population. What HR 4971 proposes to do is to create an office under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) focused on strengthening U.S. agriculture by diversifying U.S. food production – moving from reliance on globally consolidated and industrial food chains to a system that includes local production.

The findings section of the bill looks at key problems such as the high level of concentration in agricultural production and outsourcing; rising fuel costs making transporting food long distances significantly more expensive; and increased costs to treat diet-related diseases like obesity and diabetes. It also looks at positive trends – the fact that by the end of World War II over 20 million home gardens were supplying 40 percent of domestically consumed produce; the recent rise in the number of new farms that have begun smaller, less consolidated operations within the past three years; and the steady growth of farmers’ markets throughout the United States – many of which now feature electronic benefit transfer devices allowing for food stamp purchases.

Specifically, the bill would create an Office of Urban Agriculture responsible for coordinating USDA activities focused on food security and economic development in underserved communities that do not traditionally participate in USDA programs; expand the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program which links farmers to consumers and create a farmers market infrastructure program to assist with the development of thousands of farmers markets; authorize up to $20 million in grants and micro-lending intended for organizations working toward urban agriculture; create nutrition programs in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and school feeding program to use food production as a mechanism for teaching healthier food options and to better integrate locally produced foods into the feeding programs; and provide extra money to schools that teach children about gardening or food production if the food they produce is used in school meals. Currently, schools get about $2.68 per school lunch (less for breakfast). This bill provides an extra 20 percent for every meal that includes food from the school garden or other educational program (like agricultural internships).

This bill is an important step in rethinking the role of the USDA which has traditionally focused on maximizing large-scale production as a way of carrying out its mandate to promote agriculture, food safety and nutrition. One problem with large-scale agriculture is that many people – especially those living in food deserts – are left feeling disconnected from the land and sources of their food (see related article here). Few U.S. citizens can participate in mechanized large-scale agriculture since the capital intensive start-up costs and overhead make it prohibitive. The bill proposes that the USDA empower and capacitate community garden programs, expand access to nutritious food by better connecting local communities with local farmers and promote agricultural education in schools. This can ultimately serve to keep money circulating within local communities while creating strong local connections and providing viable livelihoods.

These proposals can be constructive in building an economy of thriving resilient communities – the kind of communities that Bill McKibben describes in his book Deep Economy. We are not independent individuals but interdependent members of Earth-based communities. Community-based investment – especially in community gardens that connect people directly to the land – keeps resources circulating locally. This has the potential to build community assets and strengthen social ties.

Faith in action:

Ask your member of Congress to contact Marcy Kaptur’s to co-sponsor the bill, or thank your member if he or she is already a co-sponsor.

Current cosponsors (as of May 1, 2010):

  • Rep. William Clay [D, MO-1]
  • Rep. Elijah Cummings [D, MD-7]
  • Rep. Kathleen Dahlkemper [D, PA-3]
  • Rep. Danny Davis [D, IL-7]
  • Rep. Marcia Fudge [D, OH-11]
  • Rep. Phil Hare [D, IL-17]
  • Rep. Jesse Jackson [D, IL-2]
  • Rep. Paul Kanjorski [D, PA-11]
  • Rep. Dale Kildee [D, MI-5]
  • Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick [D, MI-13]
  • Rep. Dennis Kucinich [D, OH-10]
  • Rep. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9]
  • Rep. James McGovern [D, MA-3]
  • Rep. Gwen Moore [D, WI-4]
  • Rep. Patrick Murphy [D, PA-8]
  • Rep. Richard Neal [D, MA-2]
  • Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard [D, CA-34]
  • Rep. Bobby Rush [D, IL-1]
  • Rep. Timothy Ryan [D, OH-17]
  • Rep. Brad Sherman [D, CA-27]
  • Rep. Betty Sutton [D, OH-13]
  • Rep. Bennie Thompson [D, MS-2]
  • Rep. Paul Tonko [D, NY-21]
  • Rep. Nydia Velázquez [D, NY-12]
  • Rep. John Yarmuth [D, KY-3]
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