Urban farms can be a crucial part of food access coverage

But in order to create lasting change, we can’t be satisfied with just recognizing the symptoms of an unjust system and responding with patchwork solutions.
The grounds of Reno Farm Systems. A blue sky with a sheet of clouds hangs over hills dotted with trees and a field with spots of brown and green grass. A barbed wire fence is prominent in front of a greenhouse and other structures. On the fence, white WIC Nevada banners, with blackberry and strawberry baskets, read "Nevada WIC & Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program: Coupons Accepted Here" and "Programa de Nutrición del Mercado de Agricultores Para Mayores y WIC de Nevada: Cupones Aceptados Aquí." Square blackboards to the left read "FOOD NEWS!" and have information about plant containers.
Photo courtesy of Reno Food Systems.

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This piece is a part of our series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

The modern American food system is a highly complex, dynamic beast. Although industrialized agriculture has ostensibly put a larger variety of food within reach, the true costs of production — exploitative labor practices, resulting damage to global ecosystems, and detrimental health outcomes — remain hidden from consumers.

Thankfully, one of the easiest and most effective ways to fill in the gaps caused by the persistent lack of equitable food distribution in cities is also, at least on its face, one of the simplest — urban farms. By reclaiming vacant or underutilized space, urban farming can maximize food yields with a small footprint, provide communities the opportunity to learn valuable agricultural skills, connect with nature, and actualize real food sovereignty.

Besides strengthening ties within a community, urban farms also serve as carbon sinks; they filter urban water supplies and create essential green spaces. Ultimately, the best way to think about an urban farm is to compare it to a library or a co-op. It’s a community resource whose utility grows the more people know about and use it.

Particularly in the United States, uncomfortable but vital conversations about race, class, and privilege within the food infrastructure are long overdue. Whether it’s the overrepresentation of undocumented immigrant labor in American farms and ranches, systemic divestment in low-income urban communities, or the implicit biases of the organic food movement, what’s clear is that something is very wrong with how food is produced and moved across America. And media organizations — whether they’re explicitly focused on covering food or not — are complicit in this. Whether they recognize that is another question. 

As such, if food media wants to capture the breadth of what it means to eat in America — including local food needs — informing people about community resources like urban farms is a crucial component of that work. More importantly, highlighting efforts to rectify food inequity also exposes why it exists, challenging us to think critically about where and how food is produced, and who has access to it.

For Meagan O’Farrell, the food justice manager and director at Reno Food Systems (RFS), farming in the Nevadan high desert requires honesty and clarity.

“Because of our climate, we depend on our food coming from a lot of outside places,” O’Farrell said. “We have a short season, and it’s challenging to grow food even in the window we have. Our current system relies on our food coming from great distances, sometimes.” 

Nestled against the eastern Sierra Nevada, Reno’s grocery stores have to be replenished daily from trucks crossing over Donner Pass. When winter storms hit, fresh produce quickly runs out.

RFS is a five-acre working urban farm. The Reno farm’s main goal is increasing food access for low-income children and families in northern Nevada. O’Farrell joined after graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019. Immediately, she recognized the need for a resilient, autonomous food system.

“I wanted to learn the skills to grow food in the high desert, but also I wanted to figure out, ‘What are some ways we can make food more accessible in the community?’” 

One way RFS works towards this is with seedlings. The farm runs a nursery where people can learn about propagation, soil-making, transplanting, and fertilizing. Every year, they participate in the Great Basin Community Food Co-op’s annual Seedling Sale. Seedling donations have also helped start other food equity projects and community gardens in Reno, including the Hampton House Garden Project and Soulful Seeds, a community garden tended by the residents of a local women’s shelter. 

Fieldwork is another way community members learn the nuances of high desert agriculture, by preparing annual vegetables or soil, row planning, harvest, processing, and distribution. Notably, letting volunteers experience every part of their food system is essential, says O’Farrell, because reciprocal engagement supports the farm and empowers volunteers, who donate time and labor while gaining empirical knowledge and fresh produce. 

Two goats, a white-and-brown spotted female and a brown male, lean through the holes in a square-wire fence.
Goats on site at RFS. Photo courtesy of Reno Farm Systems.

This piece is a part of our series “The Food Media Reckoning” — a collection of reporting, essays, and criticism about the holes that still exist in food media — and what its future could look like when we look to its past. Read more here.

“People are excited to donate or volunteer to a program that’s immediately impactful, but there’s more to it than that,” she said. Although farm work carries a bucolic charm to it, O’Farrell admitted that addressing needs also involves critically analyzing power structures that create injustice within the food landscape.

In Reno specifically, homelessness and gentrification have forced many low-income residents from their homes. Many times, these people are disabled, military veterans, or otherwise dependent on social welfare — Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities often exist at intersections with those identities. Without permanent addresses, food preparation and storage quickly becomes a survival situation. 

Three thousand miles away, Liz Gostev is also untangling the thick web of food insecurity and systemic oppression.

Gostev works for Brady Farm in the Southside neighborhood of Syracuse, New York. Brady is an outreach project of the Brady Faith Center, a religious group calling itself an “Oasis for Peace, Hope, and Justice” in the Southside. Gostev, the farm’s apprenticeship program director, said their mission was simple: to provide organic produce for the Southside either at or below conventional grocery store prices.

The neighborhood’s history is key to understanding why Brady is here. The Southside, a historically Black neighborhood, has some of the highest rates of child poverty, both in Syracuse and nationally. There are no grocery stores within walking distance, only fast food outlets and corner marts. Decades of divestment have left the neighborhood without many essential services, lacking in businesses, and brimming with abandoned, destitute houses.

In the 1960s, Syracuse bulldozed the historic 15th Ward — a historically Black and Jewish community built in response to housing segregation. It was done to construct the Interstate 81 freeway, which now bisects the city north to south. After, redlining and discriminatory banking practices forced the city’s Black population into the Southside, as well as the inner-city southwest neighborhoods.

For Gostev, the farm represents a radical shift in addressing food equity in the Southside. 

“One of the big issues of food systems today is that they begin at one end and end somewhere entirely different,” Gostev said. “Closed food systems support sustainability, seasonality, and help build community resilience.” Brady is not only growing food to serve a historically marginalized community, it’s working with them to do it successfully — and sustainably — in their own neighborhood. 

Brady Farm grows produce on five acres of reclaimed land, just like RFS. The farm offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, pantry donations, and a farmstand. They also grow pollinator flowers, cultivate mushrooms, experiment with hugelkultur — a centuries-old permaculture gardening technique — and even have a children’s garden with tunnels made of trellised strawberry vines.

A red tractor on the fields of Brady Farm, in front of greenhouses.
A tractor on the grounds of Brady Farm. Photo courtesy of Brady Farm.

Also working against a short growing season, Brady manages to harvest a sizable crop in a dense urban setting. “Even in the fall and winter, we are so lucky to have so much water, and so many high-calorie foods,” said Gostev.

Although the farm is centrally located in the Southside neighborhood, most people who live there don’t know about Brady. Sharing Brady’s harvest with community members is challenging: “It sometimes really feels like we’re still promoting ourselves,” Gostev said, adding that during the summer, most of their farmstand customers were surprised to learn the Southside contained an entire farm. 

The farm isn’t connected to public transit, either, adding another layer of inaccessibility for many who rely on it as their primary mode of transportation. Even amidst the grueling upstate New York winter, the farm’s market is a vital lifeline for a neighborhood severely lacking in resources. Ultimately, Gostev hopes people see Brady Farm not only as a resource for food, but a way for the community to manifest their own future.

“I want people to be aware of the farm and understand what it really is,” she said.

The disconnect between food justice workers and their target communities is another reason media coverage is an essential part of food sovereignty work. Representing food justice means covering the list of challenges these projects face hand-in-hand with highlighting their work and how it can be accessed.  In turn, media outlets reporting on these efforts serve their readership, push the conversation forward, and build trust with the communities and groups being served.

Food security advocates say that one of the biggest issues they face is struggling to persuade others about the intersectionality of food insecurity. Even as terms like food deserts and food sovereignty appear more frequently in the nation’s political discourse, the systemic barriers that disproportionately affect people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and poor people continue to burden these communities.

Naomi Starkman, the founder and editor-in-chief for Civil Eats, stressed the importance of  making sure the messages in stories are accurately representative of the community in mind. For her, that means empowering people of color who are local leaders and decision-makers within the food movement.

Promoting the voices of marginalized people not only decenters dominant cultural narratives, it also brings attention to one of the root causes for the disparity: poverty. According to 2020 Census Bureau data, poverty rates for Black Americans are double the rates of poverty for white Americans, and the same holds true for Hispanic Americans. Unfortunately, prevailing attitudes within the media tend to reinforce the idea that poverty is a matter of personal responsibility. 

“Nobody wants to talk about poverty,” said Starkman. “As long as we have a capitalist society, food justice is going to make people’s skin crawl.” 

Starkman also said sharing people’s stories within the food justice movement consistently reaps benefits for those who do the work, too. She specifically mentioned Doria Robinson, an urban farmer based in North Richmond, California. After her profile appeared in Civil Eats, Robinson told Starkman she received an overwhelming amount of support, allowing her to expand her project.

“There are a lot of examples where we’ve done reporting to uplift people and projects,” said Starkman, “and then later on people tell us that it made a difference in their community, helped them raise money, or move an agenda forward.”

Within cities, urban farms are a tool and a resource. However, for O’Farrell, the urban farm isn’t just a place for work, “it’s also a place for healing, for reconnecting with the land.” Similarly, Gostev said Brady Farm “wasn’t just about food. It was about creating a community space … creating something that has some sort of liveliness and energy.”

In the face of relentless climate change, ideological unrest, and deteriorating infrastructure, urban farms present communities with what writer Luz Cruz calls “the power to dictate the world they want to live in.” With the proximity to enact relatively quick, tangible change, urban farms can become indispensable in reviving urban communities. But in order to create lasting change, we cannot be satisfied with merely recognizing the symptoms of an unjust system and responding with patchwork solutions. 

“Food justice work is racial justice work is housing security work,” O’Farrell told me. “How do you disseminate that information in a way that feels true but doesn’t overwhelm or turn off your audience? And how do you get them to actually engage instead of pushing away because it’s uncomfortable?”

If food media wants to actually help create food sovereignty, answering that question is a good place to start.

Right now, Alex Espitia-Casallas is studying Clinical Laboratory Science at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. His writing appears in Eaten, Dogtime, and Out of Office Magazine. Before returning to school, he spent over ten years working in the restaurant industry; first as a cook and then as a patissier. He’s grateful to both Brady Farm and Reno Food Systems for their radical vision and their generosity. Find Alex on Instagram: @head_sock.

This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy edits by Gabe Schneider.

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