Urban farms provide healthy food for those who least expect it

11/02/2011 8:20:04 AM

In his private garden, Colin McCrate grows a full bed of garlic. And potatoes. And onions, tomatoes, basil, kale (he eats it all the time), eggplants, rhubarb and anything else he can get his hands on.

He tends to his own 3,000 square foot garden at night. During the day, he's building new ones for his customers.

McCrate is the founder and co-owner of the Seattle Urban Farm Company in Seattle, which helps homeowners, schools and businesses in the city set up backyard or rooftop gardens in which they can grow their own food.

"In a lot of way it opens up doors," McCrate said. "It makes the whole food system more accessible to people. They can see it. It's a present thing in their daily life. It builds awareness that way, brings in all these added benefits."

According to McCrate, the benefits of urban farming are numerous - it builds a sense of community, for instance, and its practitioners obviously know where all their food is coming from, excising any doubts about the safety of what they eat.

"I don't think we'd still be doing it if it didn't seem like it was having a positive effect on people," McCrate said.

The Seattle Urban Farm Company couldn't exist without the recent, noticeable spike in the public's interest in urban agriculture, and McCrate isn't the only one who has recently been bitten by the home-grown-food bug. Urban farms with various goals are popping up across the country.

Whereas McCrate acts as a consult to his customers, helping plan and build their farms, other farms open to help low-income neighborhoods get cheaper, healthier food. Some are personal gardens that happen to exist in a city climate; others feed hundreds.

Kate Lee is the farm manager at Common Good City Farm, a non-profit urban farm tucked away in a low-income area of D.C. One of its programs, Green Tomorrows, asks members to either contribute at least two hours of work on the farm or $40 per week to receive some of the farm's produce. In order to qualify for the program, prospective members must make less than the D.C. living wage.

The other goal of the farm, Lee said, is to educate members on everything ranging from farming techniques to where food comes from to composting. Because stores selling healthy food have become prohibitively expensive, Lee maintained that that's an important thing to focus on.

"I think the more people growing their own food, the better," she said.

But the take-off in urban farming isn't confined to consulting companies or non-profit organizations - it could literally be happening in your backyard.

Last year, Rachel Hoff and Tom Ferguson, residents of Vallejo, Calif., decided to go an entire year without buying groceries. Instead, they would grow the majority of their food in the quarter acre behind their house, and get whatever extra supplies they needed at local farmers markets.

After nine months, the pair realized their garden (plus some leftover food they had stocked up) was more than sufficient. They decided to stop going to the farmer's market, as well.

According to Hoff, the impetus behind this whole project was to not only rid their house of processed foods (Hoff is allergic to soy and canola, ubiquitous ingredients in processed foods), but also to support local farmers. The yearlong project went so well that when it ended on Oct. 1, Hoff and Ferguson still avoided the grocery store.

"The biggest lesson we learned was that it was much easier than we thought it would be," Hoff wrote in an email. "When we first started the challenge we didn't give ourselves any time to prepare, so our garden really wasn't producing anything. It showed us that you don't actually have to grow and raise all of your own food to eliminate the grocery store."

Since their first year without groceries ended, Hoff and Ferguson have gone back to the farmer's market, and are now allowing themselves one restaurant visit per month. Still, though, they are avoiding the grocery store and processed foods altogether.

"The reasons we started this challenge haven't changed," Hoff wrote. "And because it was easier than we anticipated, it just makes sense to make it a lifelong commitment."

Even though the goals and reasons for taking on urban farming differ from person to person, really, when it comes down to it, the desire stems from similar places. There's a reason Hoff and Ferguson show no signs of depending on groceries ever again. There's a reason McCrate can spend an entire workday working on gardens, come home at night and continue to work on his own.

"It's way better than taking drugs to make yourself happy," McCrate said, "but I think it has the same effect."

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