Digging for Answers: Do urban farms reduce food insecurity?

Dana MoskowitzAugust 14, 2018

By Dana Moskowitz

Dana is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and has a strong interest in public health and creating healthy communities. In her free time she reads, sews, and goes outside.

Looking at a map of over 160 urban farms and community gardens in the East Bay region of the Bay Area, it is jarring to juxtapose this seeming abundance of urban food production with the realities of chronic food insecurity and rising income inequality that persist in the community. I attended an event about food justice and education a few months ago at the Spiral Gardens Community Food Security Project. I was able to join a community committed to making food and land available to all those who seek it for free. The folks at this farm have created a radical space to serve everyone and anyone in their community but I couldn’t help wonder who was actually able to access this resource. The extent to which urban farms are feeding people in low income neighborhoods is in need of further investigation. Many urban farms have to choose between providing food back to the communities in which they are located, or hiring from those communities and selling produce at a premium to higher end markets. I joined an ongoing Berkeley Food Institute research project on urban agriculture as a SPUR Undergraduate Research assistant to help investigate the relationship between food access, distribution, and community food security.

The overall project, Sustainable Urban Farming for Resilience and Food Security, has many components and uses participatory research approaches throughout. These components include identifying resilient agro-ecological production methods and pest prevention strategies, mapping distribution of food in the East Bay, and identifying strategies to increase food security for the community. I am working on the food distribution research and our main goals are:

  1. Understand and address food access/distribution challenges of urban produced foods
  2. Build broader networks and coalitions working together to improve East Bay food insecurity, reduce food waste, and propose equitable urban agriculture policy measures

Phase 1: Lit Review
The literature review is an essential first step in any research project. By analyzing previous literature we can identify unanswered questions in our field of interest. This helps us focus our own investigation to fill those gaps. Alana Siegner, Jennifer Sowerwine, and Charisma Acey started their exploration in urban produced food and its impact on communities (broadly) by looking for those unanswered questions. In addition to systematic searches in academic databases, they used Google Alerts to get daily news updates on innovations in the urban agriculture field, which is driven largely by non-academic actors. One huge finding was that there were only a few robust studies that examined how urban farms can reduce food insecurity in low income neighborhoods. Much more theoretical literature exists on the potential of urban farms to feed urban populations, rather than the reality and challenges on the ground in doing so. This indicates that more work is needed to identify policies and practices that are effective in reducing food insecurity using urban farms, as well as more collaborative studies uniting urban agriculture researchers and practitioners. Otherwise, policymakers risk supporting policies that are inequitable and do not meet their goals.  

Phase 2: Mapping
With a strong base of knowledge acquired through the literature review it was time to move forward on a large aspect of our project: Mapping the distribution of food through urban farms in the East Bay. We began the process by gathering a list of as many farms in the East Bay as we could find, building off of existing datasets from UC Cooperative Extension. Then we created a survey of questions regarding farm operations, distribution channels, and goals for the future. We hope to use the final answers from this survey to map distribution patterns, understand the roles of these farms in their communities, and guide a series of workshops in the fall designed to address some of the challenges expressed.

In executing a participatory approach, we have already run into difficulty. Due to the particular season we sent out the survey (Summer), farmers have more work than ever and may not have time to fill out our survey. This is one moment when we find grant timelines don’t always match with reality (especially farming timelines). So, we’ve had to extend the survey deadline and send many reminder emails to try and boost response rates.

Once we get enough responses, we will utilize the information by layering it with different data sets (including Census data and the CalEnviroScreen data) to visualize the current state of food flows and urban farm dynamics in the East Bay. For example, below is a preliminary map of the farms of the east bay with the CalEnviroScreen score for each census tract. CalEnviroScreen examines a multitude of pollution levels along with the vulnerability of communities to create a score ranging from 0 to 100. The smaller the score the less vulnerable a community is. We can use this map to see if farms are located in areas with more or less vulnerable populations. This is just one method of analyzing the capacity of urban farms to increase food security, through geographic proximity, while of course many other variables affect the outcome of interest.

Other Projects

Though I am most directly involved in and excited about the mapping possibilities, the other parts of this three year grant-funded project are making interesting discoveries as well. The team of researchers working on a soil health, organic practices, and no-till farming experiment have already supplied over 1,200 pounds of food to the Berkeley Food Pantry, Cheese Board Pizza Collective, and other food distribution outlets in the community, such as Canticle Farm (a farm that is focused on intentional community to uplift residents of East Oakland).

The dedicated people counting insects and their eggs have at least ten sites that they sample every 10 days. They plan on hosting several workshops and creating a video series to make their work accessible to urban growers seeking to increase beneficial insects and reduce pest presence in their gardens.

This is just the beginning in understanding the resilience and viability of urban farms to reduce food insecurity. These questions will be examined over the next two years with the goal of sharing findings with our community and policymakers. We will be hosting events and workshops and posting videos with project updates throughout the fall. Follow our project on our website, or email asiegner@berkeley.edu to receive project updates.

If you are interesting in volunteering at the many local farms in the East Bay you can click the leaves on the map to see the farm name and website, if available.