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Urban Farms Take Root

by Enrique Gili

SAN DIEGO, California - Juxtapose the word urban in front of farm and there’s bound to be a lot of head scratching. But in cities around the U.S. small-scale farms and garden plots are coming to life in unlikely places. Abandoned city lots, and neglected yards are being converted into vegetable gardens - as basic food literacy becomes part of the vocabulary of city dwellers.

Due to a faltering economy and numerous food scares, many U.S. households are asking two basic questions: ‘Where does my food come from?’ Followed by, ‘How do we pay for it?’

The recently established New Roots farm located in San Diego is part of an unusual experiment among food activists to bring sustainable agriculture within city limits. Under the aegis of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organisation working with refugees worldwide, the immigrant community of City Heights has started an "urban farm" for local residents.

Open since mid-July, the New Roots Community Farm as the property has come to be called is a raw patch of land located on 2.2 acres of city property with the potential to supplement the diets of hundreds if not thousands of low-income individuals living in greater San Diego.

The so-called farm opened after nearly four years of negotiations with local and federal agencies. "It took us a long time to get access to this land," mentions Amy Lint, IRC food security coordinator, when speaking of the effort to obtain and secure the proper permits from city planners.

The founders are hoping the new farm can serve as an example of what can be done in an urban setting. Since, even small plots of land can be surprisingly productive in the hands of experienced growers.

Many participants are recipients of some form of federal assistance intended for families living below or slightly above the poverty level. "People aren’t eating three meals a day here," says Lint.

According to Lint, the IRC sees the farm as an opportunity to enable newcomers to survive and thrive. The farms are helping refugees to integrate into mainstream society and improve nutrition - along with employment opportunities that operating a small-scale farm can provide. The best way to help New Farms’ members Lint contends is to help them to grow food for themselves.

Many of the members have fled political hotspots. Driven out of their homelands during periods of civil war and extreme violence.

In some ways, the farm is a microcosm of a world the members have left behind. Composed of people of Burmese, Cambodian, Guatemalan, and Somali-Bantu ancestry, among others. A majority of New Roots members belong to marginalised ethnic groups that lived in rural societies based on clan and family affiliations.

"We’re farmers," explains Hamadi Jumale, a mental-healthcare case manager and spokesperson for the Bantu-Somali Community Organisation in San Diego.

Bilali Muya, New Roots farm manager and community advocate, offered a brief glimpse into his personal history. Muya’s world collapsed when civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991. He fled across the border into Kenya. Eventually reuniting with his parents and made his way to a refugee camp that brought him to America.

The journey is still fresh in his memory. "We weren’t rich, we weren’t educated, so why did they want to kill us?" he asked when speaking of the politically dominant Somali clans that victimised Bantu-Somali villages.

Prior to the civil war the Somali-Bantu formed the backbone of Somalia’s agricultural region producing crops in the Juba Valley. Imported to work as slaves in the 18th Century their presence in Somalia was a lasting legacy of the Arab slave trade that marked them as cultural and ethnic outsiders.

After a nearly decade of fighting, the U.S. State Department recognized the plight of the Somali-Bantu, according them refugee status. In 1999 U.N. officials began arranging for their transport from refugee camps in Kenya to the U.S. where approximately 12,000 of them have resettled.

On a late summer afternoon, the sun ebbed over an arid low-rise landscape that hardly evoked the countryside - in a part of town the tourist bureau avoids to mention. Planes flew overhead amid the hum of commuter traffic filling the air with white noise.

The farm is a work in progress. Eighty10-foot by 20-foot plots have been allocated to four immigrant groups with the remainder to be distributed among local residents. Presently, the garden plots are in the care of friends and family doing what needs to be done in order to make the soil productive. Much of the field remains to be cleared of rocks. Still there are promising signs of life, as new vegetation emerges on what at first appeared to be wasteland.

The soft-spoken Muya articulated what the Somali-Bantu hoped to accomplish in City Heights. The farm he believes gives the group a focus regardless of their circumstances. Linking the 400 Somali-Bantu families living San Diego to their agricultural past and providing hope for the future. "We are here to build our lives and the lives of our children," he says. With that, Muya slipped off to the hospital to attend to his wife and newborn child.

Although New Roots is a small part of the overall farming equation. The personal stories of the people involved in the food movement, like the Bantu- Somali, have energised food advocates to take action - proposing sweeping reforms in the way food is grown and distributed, ranging from tax credits for reducing carbon emissions to various farm-to-table initiatives that provide low-income families with better access to fresh produce.

The federal government is already tinkering around the edges of the food system.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics as of 2008, 753 farmers’ markets nationwide accepted food stamps, a 34 percent increase over the prior year. While the percentage of redemptions are very small when compared to the amount of revenues actually generated at farmers’ markets. It has increased from about 1 million dollars in 2007 to 2.7 million dollars in 2008.

In terms of actual policy reform, it also helps to have an advocate for sustainable agriculture living at the White House. Food activists were euphoric when first lady Michelle Obama broke ground on her organic garden in Mar. 2009. "We know what we are doing is being supported at the very highest levels," says University of California at Davis Food Systems Expert Gail Feenstra.

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