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.
In what some might describe as a midlife crisis and others an epiphany, Daron Babcock, the executive Director of urban farming organization Bonton Farms, quit his all-consuming job in the corporate world and moved to Bonton, an impoverished inner city community in Dallas, Texas. He had already been volunteering there once a week, meeting with a group of men who had been in prison and were struggling to get their lives back on track. But two hours on a Saturday was not enough, so he decided to work full-time with the men.
After moving to Bonton, he noticed that many people were sick and dying at a rapid rate. He also learned that Bonton was a food desert, with the nearest grocery store a three hour return trip on public transportation. Daron recognized a correlation between the lack of access to healthy food and the high rate of cancer, stroke, heart disease, and diabetes – Bonton had a 300 percent higher death rate from diabetes than the county rate.
It was a collaboration between six men, three of whom suffered from diabetes and cancer, that led to a decision to plant a garden.
Talking about the homeless population of America is popular these days. And yet fixing the situation seems, to many, an impossibly overwhelming task. Others are proving it’s not. The Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project (HGP) uses sustainable agriculture as the springboard to a safer, productive and more hopeful life for many. The agriculture and gardening training provided to the homeless of Santa Cruz County through the project has culminated in both jobs and permanent housing for its trainees.
“We find people that express much greater degrees of well being after they are with us for a year, whether it’s in their diet, in their sense of self, in their ability to set goals and achieve them, in how connected they feel to the community,” says Darrie Ganzhorn Executive Director of the Homeless Garden Project.
Established in 1990, the HGP was the brainchild of Paul Lee, a member of the Citizens Committee on Homelessness. Lee began spending nights along with other board members in the homeless shelter.
Faced with an empty lot in the Bronx, NY, Karen Washington decided to start growing.
“I had no knowledge. I took some seeds and put them in the ground. I knew that they needed water and sun – I just did it.”
That was in the 1980s. Since then, Washington has become a practiced urban and rural farmer and community activist. However, she warns, “When someone says they’re an expert in farming and gardening, they’re not. Because it’s mother nature… and you’re always learning.”
Washington points to elders as an important source of learning. By picking the brains of those who had farmed and gardened before her, she was able to make her first forays in the soil.
Then in 2008, Washington attended a six-month program with The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
For Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston (UFI), farming was always a part of family life. Her grandfather, who came from Jamaica, set up his own mini farm right in Boston where he grew everything from grapes to a wide variety of vegetables. Her father then did the same thing in their home. Now as executive director of the Urban Farming Institute, a job that requires plenty of energy and enthusiasm, she is actively pursuing the organization’s all-encompassing mission.
Patricia recalls how recently students from a local university came over to discuss business planning. At one point the students said, “So you have to decide in your mission statement, which thing you’re going to do – are you going to work on the commercial sector and create the farmers, or are you going to engage the urban communities?” Her response was unequivocal: “There is no separation. We have to do it all. Because as you’re farming, your community is walking right by you and you want to engage them, get them involved. That’s the best way to do it.”