Urban Agriculture: Shifting From Oasis to Food System Mainstream?

August 9, 2010

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director

Taqwa Farm in the Bronx

The explosion of interest around urban ag is undeniable. It is little wonder as it serves as a portal to community building, local pride, skill building, the knitting of relationships across perceived cultural and age divides, the physical and psychological transformation of vacant lots, the growing of food, and the feeding of people, body and soul. Funders large and small are clamoring to learn more about the social change mechanisms presented in urban ag. The Sustainable Ag and Food System funders dedicated a number of sessions and field visits to urban ag during its 2010 annual conference (see previous blog post for details).


Funder field trips, learning journeys and site visits, however, often focus on the urban oasis effect of these farms. In isolation, even an explosion of urban ag farming oases that feed their neighbors won’t add up to a changed food system, yet a new food system seems to be the dream. Many skeptics think this is an elusive dream, but my latest site visit to Taqwa Farms in the Bronx provided another perspective.


Taqwa Farms is definitely an oasis, but the leaders of Just Food were on hand to talk about the systemic changes they believe are possible. Just Food firmly asserts that community needs differ and that some gardens and farms will remain unplugged from the system, but for those aspiring to be a part of the regional food system movement, Just Food is there. They are turning from farmer support to farmer networks and learning communities. And after careful study and documentation of on-the-ground successes, plus model training efforts and transfer of knowledge initiatives throughout NYC’s five boroughs, Just Food has developed a sophisticated suite of guides and toolkits to support rural-to-urban farming connections and urban market developments. If you visit the resource page at Just Food you will be able to order the following: Farming for NYC Toolkit (this is the rural to urban link that helps farmers within 250 miles of New York City connect with direct City marketing opportunities), the City Farms Market Guide, the City Farms Toolkit, the City Chicken Guide (more on that in a second), the CSA in NYC Toolkit, the Local Produce Link Toolkit, plus the Veggie Tipsheets Book and CD.


These resources are the intellectual and practical how-to architectural frame for a regional food system. But Just Food knows that experiential learning is the key to success.

Through a partnership with Heifer International, Just Food paid attention to who was thriving in the city farming realm and recognized the enormous talent pool of growers and livestock handlers; they also realized that these experts wanted to share their knowledge. Just Food and Heifer worked to adapt Heifer’s developing world livestock program to the urban core.  The program is based on a holistic notion of community transformation and food sovereignty. Heifer says that “to receive an animal, families must go through extensive training, but training doesn’t stop with the animal. We also educate families on the importance of gender equity, protecting the environment and provide basic education such as literacy training and money management.”

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For Just Food, the response has been a shift from Just Food experts dropping in to train city farmers to a train-the-trainer program of community practitioners and experts. It reminds me of the “alternate route” teaching certification program that enables content experts to gain the teaching skills that will enable them to be effective classroom teachers.

Just Food is creating a route for community farming experts to become community food and justice educators. These educators then receive a stipend for their classes and workshops that include topics such as edible weeds, starting markets, and farming models; plus events such as market visits, seasonal cooking instruction, knife skills, and recipe selections. Workshops are co-sponsored by community groups, so the sense of ownership about market development starts to run deep.


There are additional layers of enterprising opportunities in the urban farming arena. Just Food actually has a training and livestock coordinator. And to back this up, Just Food forges full steam into policy/advocacy work. Most recently, Just Food completed a two-year campaign on beekeeping that resulted in city code changes to permit this activity. Just Food is happy to share the campaign playbook because there are no party affiliations to protect here – this is a movement. Add to this the organizing efforts to develop community supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives and buying clubs to improve consumer access, and you start to feel the regional food system dream coming to life.

Has this food system connection always been the trajectory of urban growers? To answer this question we were privileged to hear the pioneering and historical perspective of John Ameroso. After more than 34 years of service innovations, John recently retired from Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension Service Program, during which he played a unique role as New York City’s Cooperative Extension Agent. John pioneered a number of horticultural and urban farming programs, including the Rikers Island Farm. And not only was John a founding member of Just Food (1995), but he also helped to pilot urban food production initiatives in more than 25 cities across the country. On this hot summer day, beneath the shade of a mature fruit tree at Taqwa Farms, John was chronicler and storyteller.


When he started this work in the mid 1970s, urban gardens stood as neighborhood strongholds against crime waves and ravaged urban landscapes. The emphasis was on urban horticultural and the focus was building social capital. In the 1980s, John noted that the notion of neighborhood beautification took hold. Unfortunately, as John accounts, that positive wave was disrupted in 1990s. There were a number of factors at play, most notably a decrease in USDA funding (which affected the Cooperative Extension work), as well as the lack of leadership succession for many of the now mature single champion garden initiatives. This past decade, however, has been marked by an upsurge in activity. The focus now is food production and food access, and the phenomenon of shrinking cities and funding shifts has brought local governments to the table to help bring urban ag to disinvested neighborhoods. There is also more thought being given to how to make the movement sustainable and how to support stronger rural to urban linkages.

John likes this new wave. He is seeing new farmers farming on land closer to the city; including Central and South Americans and other immigrant populations who are part of the new reverse commute from urban center to outlying farms. He also sees tremendous economic opportunity based on urban markets and entrepreneurial ventures. What is probably most important from a philanthropic perspective is John’s observation that social change often comes in short bursts. Given the high energy and entrepreneurial spirit at work, now he says, is the time for foundations to serve as a catalyst for the urban ag burst that could alter our local and regional food systems.

John and Taqwa Farm Coordinator Abu Talib
John and Taqwa Farm Coordinator Abu Talib

So what’s on the horizon – what will make urban ag an integral part of the regional food system and where might funders plug-in? Jacquie Berger, the accomplished Executive Director at Just Food, has more than a few thoughts on this matter. Here are some of the pieces of the puzzle:

  • On the policy and public funding fronts, state departments of ag need to invest in the urban markets and urban-rural connection; we need to see more changes need to Farm Bill, and Community Development Block Grant dollars need to be aligned with urban ag capacity building.
  • Programmatically, Community Supported Agriculture models need to be tweaked to work for lower-income people and they need to be adjusted with food access/food justice in mind. In addition, there needs to be wider spread efforts to align food benefits such as WIC, senior coupons, food bucks, etc. into urban markets (note that the Wholesome Wave Foundation is supporting double coupons benefits in a number of urban areas). Urban ag also needs to be more clearly tied to the food pantry and emergency food sector.
  • There is a need for improved data collection (currently, most of the data is self reported).
  • Land tenure issues need to be addressed, which may call for comprehensive vacant lot planning and strategies.
  • The next level of capacity building must be launched. To this end, Just Food is planning a Farm School. This decentralized learning model will integrate food production, marketing, livestock training, food access and food sovereignty components and hands-on internships.
  • Investment opportunities and models need to be explored (e.g., micro investing to take a 10 chicken operation to 50 chickens, provided the community wants to grow to this scale).


John and Jacquie both noted that our food shed should be compared to an ecosystem. The more complex and diverse it is the more robust and resilient it will be. If urban ag is experiencing short bursts toward food shed player status, where would you invest the next philanthropic dollar? We also want to know where you are seeing promising urban-rural connections and whether you believe in the dream of a new or re-regionalized food system.


A note about Taqwa Farms: Abu Talib is the community hero, resident farm educator (his specialty is edible weeds) and overall farm coordinator (and the son of a share cropper). He transformed this lot from a junk yard, dumping ground and host site of narcotic drug deals to this vibrant farm and community space. Today, this mature farms boasts 45 mature fruit trees and garden space that feeds between 5,000 and 6,000 people. The farm is outfitted with a 1,000 gallon cistern, a system of rain barrels, solar panels, a greenhouse, a chicken coop, a hydroponic growing system, a playground, and even a small community stage. The market is open on Saturdays and Sundays, and it is changing minds and changing lives about food, community, jobs and opportunities. Abu is a robust 76 years old and he proclaimed that there is “no better place for a man to retire.”


As our study team of funders was pouring over market guides, learning about urban gardening history, asking questions about land tenure challenges and vacant lot assessments, Abu quietly set a basket of freshly picked pears, apples and tomatoes in front of us. Each of us bit into luscious city farm produce and we tasted what Abu was doing here.  Abu added, “ I sleep at my house, but Taqwa is my home.” Here’s to urban farming!


From left to right: Owen Taylor (City Farms Training and Livestock Coordinator), Jacquie Berger (Just Food Executive Director), Aristides Georgantas (Chairman of the Rita Allen Foundation), John Ameroso (Just Food Board Member and retired Cornell University Cooperative Exension Agent), Elizabeth G. Christopherson (President and CEO of the Rita Allen Foundation), Rose Harvey (a Dodge Trustee and fellow with Jonathan Rose Companies and the former Senior Vice President and Urban Director for the Trust for Public Land, as well as a McCluskey Fellow at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies), Barbara Reisman (Executive Director at the Schumann Fund for New Jersey) and Chris Daggett (President and CEO of the Dodge Foundation).