Lawrence, Kansas Works to Develop Urban Farming and Local Food Infrastructure
March 6, 2014 | AJ Hughes
Home to the University of Kansas and the City of Lawrence, Douglas County, Kansas is in the midst of developing a thriving local food and urban agriculture movement.
In 2010, the county formed a Food Policy Council to identify opportunities, challenges and benefits for a sustainable local food system.
Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for Douglas County and the City of Lawrence, serves on the Council with 24 others, including farmers, representatives from food retail establishments, Kansas State University Extension, Lawrence Public Schools, the Downtown Lawrence Farmers’ Market and the Douglas County Health Department.
Horn is especially proud of one of the Council’s initiatives, the Common Ground Program in Lawrence, which began in 2012. Its objective is to transform “food deserts” and other underutilized land, often located in low-income areas, into food production plots.
“The Common Ground Program is a win-win,” says Horn. “There are more vacant lots to utilize, and there is more community interest for gardening in these areas. We got the program up and going within six months.”
According to data from the Council, a total of 120 gardeners and farmers worked with 463 volunteers and community participants to produce an estimated 40,000 pounds of produce in 2013, 2,000 of which were donated toward hunger relief efforts. The estimated market value of the produce was $80,000.
Horn sees community gardening as a great way to spearhead urban agriculture initiatives and to encourage people to talk about food and where it comes from. Currently seven different community gardens take up six acres in the city, and according to Horn, there are further opportunities for community engagement.
Common Ground community gardens functions as a garden incubator, specializing in engaging children in gardening and offering plots for rent. Garden leaders work with a nearby preschool to educate the children about the importance of gardening. A PermaCommons garden, designed to teach people about permaculture, is a stop on the Lawrence Food Gardens Tour. The tour educates visitors about how they may grow food inside the city limits.
While community gardens help bind neighbors together and increase local food output, the Food Policy Council has identified another problem in Douglas County: a lack of food access due to an inadequate local food system infrastructure. Because of inadequate connections between growers and buyers, Horn says, schools and groceries don’t have great access to locally-produced food.
To address this problem, the Food Policy Council partnered with USDA Rural Development and Kansas Health Foundation for a food hub feasibility study. Horn says the study, which envisions a food hub for the northeast region of Kansas, will be completed in June. The survey will gather data from producers, institutions and wholesale purchasers.
Currently Douglas County has the only Food Policy Council in the state, but the Kansas Health Foundation wants to fund food policy councils across the state, according to Horn.
Douglas County sits in the northeast part of Kansas, not terribly far from the metropolis of Kansas City. Horn believes that the rural nature of Douglas County gives it a significant advantage over urban centers when it comes to the production of food.
“Urban centers have to allow agriculture back in,” she says. “We have not had to roll back the rules. The County Council gets agriculture,” she says. “It’s the state’s biggest industry.”
The Food Policy Council also works to educate the public about the importance of local food through a farmers’ market at the Douglas County Fair, sponsoring a Chef’s Challenge where local chefs compete to cook local, seasonal foods.
Council officials have also made a kitchen incubator facility available for entrepreneurs and others who need its services. Education initiatives include a farm-to-school event for Lawrence Public Schools and cooperation with two MBA classes and one urban planning class at the University of Kansas to research the economic impact of local food purchases, access to healthy food and models of food hub organization.
In an effort to encourage City of Lawrence and County employees to eat healthier, the Food Policy Council partnered with two local farms to form a community supported agriculture (CSA) venture focused on wellness.
“It’s fun to see the enthusiasm and watch this unfold,” Horn says.