bringing it all back home
How urban farming can end hunger: Meet Mobile Loaves & Fishes and UrbanPatchwork Neighborhood Farms
Urban farming is pretty big in the grassroots-friendly city of Austin. We have dozens of farms within city limits and many more in the surrounding areas, an abundance of farmers markets from which to choose (and some great farmhouse delivery services that bring nature's bounty straight to your home).
But eating real, organic food that hasn't been processed, sourced from local farmers and artisans, isn't granola or trendy. Our grandparents would have simply called it food; it's only been since World War II that the mass-produced, processed, packaged grocery items, junk food and fast food have exploded and become so commonplace.
Besides being healthy for those of us who prefer to eat from locally produced foods, urban farming is quietly doing something even grander. It's working on ending hunger in America.
Urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing and distributing food in or around a village, town or city—and it's turned into a revolution. The documentary Urban Roots chronicles the movement in Detroit, one of the most blight-ridden cities in the U.S. Detroit has lost more than half its population since the 1950s, going from close to two million to around 900,000 people in the space of decades. With the urban flight and relocation from the rust belt came thousands of abandoned buildings and vacant lots—more than 100,000 of them. Urban food pioneers have transformed many of those into farms to feed the community, taking the abandoned tracts of land and growing food on them to feed the community and combat hunger.
“Feeding a person for one moment isn’t really doing anything about getting rid of the systemic issues," says one urban farmer in the documentary. People in Austin agree, and we have several similar such operations in our own backyard. You may not know about these people, but trust me—you should.
Alan Graham - Genesis Gardens, Mobile Loaves & Fishes
A lot of people around Austin know Alan Graham. Sometimes I think there may not be anyone in the city he doesn't know. But you're probably most familiar with his work at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which runs food trucks all around town to feed the homeless. They also help provide clothing, medical care, job placement services and even permanent housing to homeless people, along with that most priceless of things: dignity.
I didn't know that MLF was also growing community gardens to help feed the homeless until I interviewed an MLF client for a story a couple of months ago. Genesis Gardens is a community food project and micro-farm where volunteers and a formerly-homeless workforce come together to cultivate food for the hungry in Austin. They have 25 gardens around the city.
People are hungry and food literally grows from the ground. That alone is simple enough. Genesis Gardens grows thousands of pounds of nutritious fruits, vegetables, and farm-fresh products for those who can least afford it. They serve as a place in which people of the community, homeless or not, can root, find relationship, restoration, self-worth, dignity and empowerment.
The aim isn't simply to feed the hungry; outside the tangible benefits of food, Graham wants to empower the homeless through food and relationships, and allow them to participate in their own restoration. "One of the key reasons for homelessness is the loss of family," he says. A major goal of the MLF programs is to build a surrogate family for the homeless of Austin.
"When Mobile Loaves & Fishes began it just began as a little seed, with an idea that perhaps we could go out and distribute meals to people on the street," Graham says. Today the organization has multiple trucks feeding people every day of the year, each capable of distributing 25,000 meals per year—along with new initiatives such as Genesis Gardens.
"The long-term dream is to develop community," Graham says. "It's a profound change. We take for granted, you and I, what it means to have a home."
Paige Hill - Urban Patchwork Neighborhood Farms
After growing up on a farm, Paige Hill retained a sense of connection to the earth. Even as she pursued a career in marketing, her love for nature kept calling to her. Finally she broke away from the desk job that didn't fulfill her passion and, two years ago, started Urban Patchwork Neighborhood Farms.
“I grew up digging in the dirt," Hill told me after a morning she'd spent farming a backyard garden. "I live and breathe this." She's petite and girly, but her tomboy side showed through and her fingernails had dirt under them. Quite frankly, I had a tough time picturing her sitting in an office. The outdoors is clearly the place for her.
She officially launched Urban Patchwork on July 4, 2009—and the significance of the holiday was intentional. "I was declaring my own independence from processed, corporate grocery-story food," she says. Her passion for fresh, organic food and her desire for real community involvement compelled her to start the non-profit organization that works with neighbors to turn unused yard space into farmland.
Neighborhood residents and businesses host farm plots in their yards in exchange for fresh veggies and other opportunities that reduce cost of living and increase the quality and value of their land and lives. Neighborhood farmers and volunteers prepare the soil, plant, harvest and deliver. Hill also offers farm start-up programs, nutrition workshops, home food production and storage and other gardening and food-related classes.
The first Urban Patchwork garden was in a front yard, which generated a lot of interest. “People would walk by and ask about the plants, wanting to know more about this and about that,” Hill says. “It really brings communities together.” Her enthusiasm is contagious. She encouraged me to try cooking with some lamb's quarter, which I had never heard of before. It's similar to spinach but is fast-growing and heat-resistant, and Hill uses it to provide shade for other vegetables during the hot Texas summers. She prepared a lovely, fresh bouquet of the greens which I used in a potato salad. Delicious.
Of course, this summer's drought has negatively impacted area farms and locally grown food. Urban Patchwork is currently holding a critical fundraiser to raise money that will provide community-grown food to 50 families. The fundraiser will culminate in a benefit on Thursday, October 20, which will feature a theater performance by the Paradox Players and a lot of fabulous raffle prizes. You can buy your tickets online, and just $20 will help one family receive food, and put you in the drawing for massages, gift certificates and membership to the Austin Film Society.
Food security is an important part of the urban farming movement for Paige, as well as preserving the knowledge of providing our own food in contrast to the relatively new, post-WWII habits of processed, supermarket and fast foods. “If we don’t learn the traditional ways of our grandparents, that knowledge is about to die," she says. "Our culture is very one-track right now—the conventional modern food production system fights nature, pushes it away. It is breaking our ecosystem.”