Urban Ag: Taking steps toward political ecology

March 7, 2013

Practitioners of urban agriculture have a lot to be proud of, including forming part of a “food movement,” which is increasing in size and influence. People are questioning food systems conventions and the dominant forms of food production (industrial farming) and distribution (globalized trade) are being opposed more and more by communities around the globe. Urban agriculturists—with their claim for a viable alternative to the broken food system—seem to have at this moment a certain cultural cachet.

This is reflected in the attention urban farmers have garnered in the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other media outlets. It can be seen in the plethora of food movement documentaries like Food, Inc., Edible City, and Growing Cities. The idea of farming as a viable city activity has been further bolstered by initiatives like the White House garden. The founder of urban farming organization Growing Power, Will Allen, was even given the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2008, in what some might pinpoint as the point of arrival for urban agriculture as a social force in the United States.

But there is an aspect of urban agriculture (UA) that is often overlooked: Economic and social class dynamics. In some places, UA is driven by money-poor populations, as a means to food self sufficiency or income generation. In other locations (like San Francisco, where I live), it seems to be predominantly a pastime, or an individually-meaningful act of political conscience, pursued mainly by the college educated and those of middle class backgrounds.

This could be a simple result of the economics of residing in San Francisco: The median monthly rent is now $3,000 and no matter how you cut it, gardening isn’t likely to pay that rent. So those who spend time gardening for free (or pursuing the woefully few and underpaid jobs in UA) are very likely either young and unencumbered, rich enough to not spend all their time hustling just to survive, or lucky enough to have one of the few cheap rent controlled apartments left.

The San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA), which I helped found in 2010, has increasingly been involved in the practice of changing municipal policy to support UA. In doing this work, the SFUAA has had to confront what it means to represent populations doing UA, while—whether intentionally or not—not representing other, more marginalized populations in San Francisco.

Though “food justice” motivates many in the SFUAA, the reality of our organization has been that many of SF’s poorest populations (the people most at risk of food insecurity, as well as the vicissitudes of gentrifying neighborhoods and inflating housing costs) are inadvertently left out of these policy discussions. With this in mind, the SFUAA recently adopted a position statement on gentrification and its relation to urban agriculture.

This statement (full disclosure: I did spearhead its writing) is intended to address the racial and class dynamics plaguing UA, as just one aspect of the broader food movement. It won’t necessarily solve the problems of gentrification, or of the “unbearable whiteness of organic food,” but statements like these can position food movement organizations within a context of a much broader social movement, for justice, democracy, and environmental sanity.

As head of the Organic Consumers Association Ronnie Cummins recently wrote in his piece for commondreams.org, we need to break down the silos of our diverse social movements if we intend to make substantial change in any one silo. In his words, we need to “harmonize our discourse, broaden our alliances, and bring together the myriad currents of a U.S. and global movement for survival and revival.”

I argued similarly back in 2009, asking food activists to take a more holistic approach of “political ecology” in conceiving of and addressing food sustainability issues. Now, as a leader in the SFUAA, I have to figure out how to implement this idea in practice. Beyond the writing and official adoption of our statement, we intend to follow up by communicating our values and intentions to organizations that represent the more marginalized of San Franciscans (organizations which may or may not already be involved in urban agriculture-related work or programming) with the hopes of collaborating on initiatives that suit our mutual interests. We also hope to more generally expand awareness, mutual understanding, and mutual aid between different and differing groups in our city.

It’s important that a group like ours (and, I would argue, all food movement organizations that are predominantly white, educated, or upper middle class) does not attempt to address race or class issues out of guilt. Instead, action can be built from the awareness that, as so beautifully stated by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.” Strategies and campaigns that move from this awareness will seek struggles that connect, reach accord where none was obvious, and will therefore be more likely to succeed. In addition to outward success, they will simultaneously build communities of compassion and thus “larger loyalties” that will serve justice over the long term.

UA is particularly well suited to spark these kinds of connections, since cities are where many communities intersect, by choice or by chance. Cities are less the “melting pots” that many would claim or desire, but still, they hold promise in allowing diverse communities easy physical, communicative access to each other. The dynamics of public spaces, political processes, and communities of interest that define urbanity can be called upon to push an integration of ideas, interests, and efforts to create a new, healthier, more just, and sustainable society.

To end on a concrete example: The SFUAA was recently approached by a newly-elected freshman state assemblyman, asking for a meeting to discuss potential legislative initiatives he might advance in support of urban agriculture. In discussions within the SFUAA, it was obvious that (while we do see some state-wide reforms that could aid UA work directly) we felt there were more pressing concerns facing our state, and more priority policy reforms that could aid UA indirectly (say, by raising state revenue levels in general, the kinds that might be put forth into resources for local UA projects) while also supporting the goals of other non-UA sectors whose values are in line with ours.

For example, I would like to see higher education funding levels restored if not expanded. With that expansion, often-discussed but never implemented “green job” training programs at our local community college are far more likely to get off the ground. This would result in more actual jobs for experienced UA educators, more training opportunities for UA practitioners, and a city-wide integration of ecoliteracy education and sustainability-related projects and initiatives.

Further, because community colleges are designed to be economically accessible to many, and have already entered into diverse communities of San Francisco, such a new program would reach more students than our UA community’s educational offerings tend to. This could have the effect of diversifying UA in San Francisco, and further connecting our work with the important struggles occurring beyond UA.

In the end, what matters is that we keep up a critical awareness of our work and its context. Urban agriculture may be great, and it is certainly worth the interest it has piqued. But how can that interest (and that potential greatness) be leveraged into something bigger? That, to me, is the 21st Century challenge—not only to urban agriculturists like myself, but to all communities with a stake in the better social and ecological world we are trying to bring about.

Tags: food justice, globalization, industrial agriculture, local food, municipal food policy, political ecology, urban agriculture