Urban farms save money and battle food insecurity

Masoud Sayles of Grounded Strategies, speaks to Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding about the beginnings of an aluminum frame greenhouse at the Peace and Friendship Garden on July 12, 2022. (Mattie Neretin/Post-Gazette)

Jodie Kern started to garden with her son, Jayden, after the pandemic hit. And in the quaint outdoor space in the back of her apartment in Avalon, they have grown a variety of foods, ranging from tomatoes and zucchini to watermelon and pumpkins.

So as inflation pushes the price of groceries to record-high levels, Ms. Kern, a single mother who works as a DoorDash driver and nanny, said farming in her backyard has become a way to eat healthier, instill a hard-work ethic into Jayden and save money.

“It’s just become a situation where I am not able to fund the type of food that I had before, and that’s why I started to venture out into the gardening concept,” she said. “With things not being available and the rising prices, my budget just wasn’t allowing it.”

Ms. Kern is not the only one feeling the effects of inflation. Every level of the food pyramid is getting more expensive as the price tag of U.S. food has gone up 10.4% in the past year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The cost of fruits and vegetables alone has risen 8.1% in the United States over the past year.

But for Ms. Kern and Jayden, even if groceries are more expensive, an entire garden of fresh vegetables is too much for the two of them, so the pair have also been donating their extra yields to friends or neighbors in need.

“If there’s an abundance of [fruits and vegetables], we try to share with the community for those who are struggling that need it, simply because we have more than we need,” Ms. Kern said.

Urban agriculture, like Ms. Kern’s backyard garden, also includes community grow spaces, vertical farms or rooftop plants. These efforts may help combat the rising cost of food by producing local, cheap or free fruits and vegetables, state officials and urban farmers said.

“Our challenge is making sure that folks who need food have access, and inflation simply puts more pressure, and I would argue puts more need out there,” Russel Redding, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture secretary, said Tuesday.

Food prices worldwide are soaring due to a mix of international crises like the war in Ukraine that led to a wheat shortage to trucker staffing shortages that resulted in rotting milk, fruits and vegetables with no way to make it onto grocery store shelves.

In the United States, inflation has climbed to a 40-year record high of 9.1% in June compared with the previous year. As a result, the prices for gas, home construction and food have skyrocketed for Pittsburgh residents.

Urban agriculture, advocates said, may provide some respite from those high prices by offering neighbors free locally grown food, lessons on how to grow at home, and community gardens on plots that neighbors can work together to build and expand.

AJ Monsma, the community coordinator for the Garfield Community Farm, said the community farm is working to combat food affordability and insecurity by donating food and teaching people how to garden.

She said the farm serves between 50 to 100 households with food donations and will also offer plant seeds to people at food banks and tables set up in the Garfield neighborhood throughout the year to encourage at-home agriculture.

“I’ve seen an increase recently in folks who have come to get food, and that probably directly relates to food being more costly at the moment,” Ms. Monsma said.

About 11% of U.S. households were considered food insecure in 2020, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Ryan Walsh, the director of development and communications for Grow Pittsburgh, said the Pittsburgh area hosts about 128 community farms. He explained that most of them are locally run gardens that reinvest their crops into neighborhoods by donating to food pantries, selling produce at markets or offering the goods to neighbors for free.

Mr. Walsh estimated that urban agriculture serves tens of thousands of people in Pittsburgh annually, and the number is only growing as residents set up more farms in the city. For example, Grow Pittsburgh is currently adding new community farms in Observatory Hill and Bellevue, he said.

“A lot of our community gardens do food distribution themselves,” he said. “So even if folks aren’t participating by growing your own site, they’re benefiting from the garden because they’re giving away food.”

Still, even with the new creation of sites, Mr. Walsh said there is limited food availability in neighborhoods that experience food apartheid, where food is inaccessible based on historically racist and discriminatory policies like redlining.

“It’s less about where these farms exist than it is that these farms must exist to fill the gaps where grocery stores and other outlets of fresh food have been denied and taken away or removed,” he said.

But those urban gardens that may help solve some food access inequities in Pittsburgh are also becoming more challenging to create, Mr. Walsh said, because inflation is increasing the cost of gardening gear such as fences, soil, pots and tools.

“It costs a lot more than it used to,” he said.

And unlike their rural farm counterparts, which receive millions of dollars in subsidies, urban agriculture and farms often struggle to find funding for land development, maintenance, staff and production.

Liz Metzler, the director of farm operations and land management at Hilltop Urban Farm, said Hilltop heavily relies on volunteer crews to work on the farm, some of which dried up during the pandemic.

She added that those volunteering and participating in urban farming are learning skills they can apply to their gardens to grow food to create a “hyperlocal regional food system.”

In an effort to improve urban agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture launched a grant program in 2019 to fund urban farms.

Since its launch, the program has distributed thousands of dollars to urban farms in Allegheny County, including gardens like the Hilltop Urban Farm, Freeman Family Farm & Greenhouse, and Grow Pittsburgh.

Kent Dey — president and chief executive officer of the Project Love Coalition, the organization that operates the Peace and Friendship Farm and Gardens in the Hill District — emphasized that the farm and those like it serve as an opportunity for Pittsburgh veterans and farm neighbors to build community.

“Anyone in the neighborhood could stop by if they have an interest in growing fruits, vegetables or flowers,” Mr. Dey said. “Or if they want to help out and get involved, keep the place looking nice and the neighborhood looking nice. Everyone’s welcome.”

Heaven Davenport, of the Hill District, grows vegetables at the Peace and Friendship Farm. And as a remote worker, she can walk to the community garden and tend to the planted crops during her lunch break or after work.

Ms. Davenport is growing squash this year but plans to plant peppers, greens and tomatoes soon.

“It’s a good opportunity to go to the garden and eat fresh food, save money and it’s healthy for you,” she said.


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