Urban Farms Take Root

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

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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