Rising Land Prices Push Urban Farmer to Develop Creative Solutions to Increase Food and Land Access
November 9, 2016 | Trish Popovitch
Against a backdrop of rising land prices, traditional farmers in Utah struggle to survive. However, a mix of resourcefulness and necessity is driving farmers to develop creative solutions in urban environs. Salt Lake City-based Green Urban Lunch Box (GULB) is one such endeavor that is utilizing innovative growing models to ensure urban farming fills the gap traditional farming cannot afford to maintain.
“We don’t want to do what other people are doing. If we cannot do it significantly better and significantly cheaper than another nonprofit is doing it then we shouldn’t do it, because we are just going to be competing with them for funds,” says founder Shawn Peterson.
A fifth generation Utah farmer and an experienced business entrepreneur, Peterson founded the Green Urban Lunch Box six years ago in the heart of Salt Lake City after watching the movie, Truck Farm (from the maker of King Corn) on using farm trucks in the urban setting.
“I saw his project and I just wanted to do something in that creative space. There were four or five of us who just came together talking about different ideas of where we could start a garden,” says Peterson. “We landed on a school bus. Turns out they are much cheaper than pickup trucks.”
The GULB bus can be found driving to and from local senior centers, hosting free farmers’ markets and distributing food to residents who otherwise would not have access to fresh locally grown quality produce at an affordable price (approximately a dollar a pound). By turning the school bus into a blend of mobile greenhouse and farm stand, Peterson manages to share GULB’s mission while increasing access and finding out from locals what they want in terms of a local food infrastructure.
GULB provides locally grown produce, apprenticeships, garden share programs, a fruit tree registration program (fruit share program) and formal courses in urban farming. The nonprofit was originally self funded by Peterson, had a little help from a Kickstarter campaign. Today it works with partners and sponsors, and through service fees to spread its mission of maximizing local resources to fight hunger.
‘Back-Farms’ is one of GULB’s most popular programs combining their goal of reaching out to the senior population and finding urban space to farm. Volunteer apprentice growers work the land in host gardens of local seniors, and the food produce is split three ways: 1/3 to the homeowner, 1/3 to the volunteer, and 1/3 to the needy.
“We needed volunteers so the local college formed a partnership with us early on which helped shaped that intergenerational experience. The seniors love having people come over to their yard that they can share with,” says Peterson. In 2012, ‘Back-Farms’ produced over 12,000 pounds of food for redistribution from 23 gardens.
Additionally, GULB’s fruit share program has approximately 2,000 registered trees, which are harvested by volunteers. The program started with 30 trees four years ago. Like the ‘Back-Farms’ program, the harvest is split three ways and distributed to the needy in an effort to reduce waste and increase local food access. This year, they’ll harvest 60,000 pounds of fruit.
GULB offers gardening workshops, and new this season, an urban farming certification course. Peterson has already identified two students with all the right skills and the necessary dose of passion to start their own urban farms.
A stumbling block for GULB has been the existing charitable food infrastructure. Fresh high quality produce grown locally was mixed at local food banks and missions with the outdated grocery store surplus. This did not improve access (undocumented immigrants and seniors tend not to use food banks according to Peterson) or knowledge of local food growing, so Peterson decided to self-distribute the food. In 2015, GULB had 84 free markets at senior centers serving nearly 4,000 people.
Like most urban growers, Peterson advises starting small. But not only that, he strongly suggests focusing on legitimizing the business quickly in order to reach folks in need as fast as possible.
“Strategic partnerships are so important,” says Peterson. “With every one of our programs we have found really valuable partners that have helped us accomplish more with less resources, but give us legitimacy and help us reach our target population a little better.”
Peterson intends to keep working with his feedback-focused, trial and error creative approach to customizing the urban farming experience in the city, piloting programs based on local needs and wants, creating partnerships to legitimize programs, and focusing efforts on the main business of growing fresh local produce at an affordable price point.