Greater Lansing Food Bank
Michigan Organic Food
& Farm Alliance
Food Systems Project
“URBAN AGRICULTURE AND LANSING GROWN:
the many benefits of an underappreciated and underutilized resource”
Prepared by Laura B DeLind on behalf of the Lansing Urban Farm Project
Our lives have been severely disrupted over the last two or three months by a life-threatening and globetrotting virus. Sheltering in place has been a struggle for most of us, physically, economically, and socially. But it’s also allowed us to place renewed value on things we often take for granted.
This increased awareness born of troubles has its benefits. First, it gives us a sense of empathy for others. We are all vulnerable. No one of us can manage independently. Likewise, no one of us can be blamed for the problem and no one of us can fix it. Second, it puts us in a frame of mind to consider what we can do to minimize the impacts of emergency situations and to maximize our assets thereafter. This work is vital and we need to do it together – the emphasis here is on the “we.”
One possible place to start such work is right where we live. The place we call home. And one focus of our homemade effort should be the local food system – and for those of us who live, work, and play in the Lansing area this includes urban agriculture. Beginning here makes sense, not just because food is essential for our survival, which of course, it is, but because where, when, why, and how it is produced are critical to our wellbeing and the way we live our lives.
So, what is it that makes urban agriculture so critical for Lansing? Let’s consider a few of its benefits.
Most cities, Lansing included, have few full-service groceries and residents must travel to the urban-suburban fringes for fresh food and produce. Those without reliable transportation are largely dependent on the limited, but expensive, pre-packaged offerings and fast foods sold at quick stops and franchises. A steady, healthy diet is difficult.
Urban farmers (and gardeners) offer a healthy alternative and greater food security. Because their produce is grown around the corner or a mile or two from where it is consumed, it is typically fresher, riper, and more nutritious than food grown to be shipped across the country or the world. Likewise, heirlooms, seed saving, unique crops, and biodiversity can be part of the urban ag repertoire.
Freshly grown, seasonally appropriate, and reasonably priced produce has changed the nutritional profile of many Lansing residents, children, especially. Good food is a prescription for health – so much so, that some health insurance companies are offering healthy eating discounts and rebates for membership in CSAs (https://www.csacoalition.org/health-insurance-rebates).
Raising food locally also offers urban residents an opportunity to reconnect with personal preferences and cultural traditions (another measure of wellbeing). Many within Lansing’s diverse population, immigrant groups especially, have agrarian backgrounds. With the help of organizations like the Garden Project and the Ingham County Land Bank, they grow, share, and sell foods that are full of memory and meaning as well as nutrients. When shared, food that is grown at home by an urban farmer is like breaking bread – a way of connecting across language, age, income, customs, and differences. This has become ever more obvious and essential during the current pandemic as urban farmers donate extra produce to neighbors and food banks.
With regard to the urban economy, urban farmers are entrepreneurs (and something of magicians). They take back yards, front yards, side yards, extra yard, vacant yards and put them to use raising food for themselves, their neighbors, and local markets. Some of this land is leased from the Ingham County Land Bank. Now put into productive use, it saves the Land Bank about $72,000 in tax dollars annually, the cost of maintaining some 180 underutilized lots.
It is also recognized that direct marketing stimulates the local economy (https://farmersmarketcoalition.org/education/stimulate-local-economies/). In Michigan, according to the 2017 US Agricultural Census, direct local marketing accounts for almost $500M. Farmer's markets are a popular form of direct marketing. In 2019, the Allen Street Farmers Market, one of a dozen in the Lansing area (and 300 state-wide), alone accounted for over $65,000 worth of non-cash purchases. The majority of the wealth thus generated stays in the area, circulating through and supporting local shops and services. Large-scale, industrial-style agriculture, on the other hand, tends to siphon money out of the area. According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance and the American Independent Business Alliance somewhere between 48-52% of all local purchases recirculates locally compared to 14% for chain stores (https://ilsr.org/key-studies-why-local-matters/; https://www.amiba.net/resources/multiplier-effect/).
This is true for money spent on such things as year-round asparagus (Mexico), rock hard tomatoes (Florida), and flavorless apples (Chile or New Zealand). Produce grown on urban farms is also featured by local restaurants, food trucks, and groceries, further supporting local entrepreneurship as well as creative (and delicious) eating. While Lansing Grown farmers can’t (and don’t) raise bananas, they are masters at raising the produce that suits our Zone 5b environment – which does include asparagus, tomatoes, apples, and pawpaws (a relative of the banana).
When purchased in season, locally grown vegetables cost no more (and sometimes less) than those sold in large groceries (https://www.agmrc.org/media/cms/Is_Local_Food_More_Expensive_0DEEF5B9A5323.pdf ). Other local foods can cost more, but unlike industrially-produced commodities, the costs are largely born by the farmer (i.e., internalized) rather than by society as a whole (i.e., externalized) in the form of lost jobs, main street businesses, government subsidies, compromised health, and environmental damage.
But it is also worth noting that many locally grown products can’t be compared; they simply do not exist in the commercial food market. Likewise, it is puzzling to realize that we hardly ever object to the cost of tobacco, alcohol, and/or lottery tickets, but we do demand ‘cheap’ food.
Urban food and farming also have benefits for the urban environment. Land managed for food and plant production increases the city’s green space. It offers a more permeable surface, which unlike blacktop or concrete can minimize stormwater runoff and damage. Well maintained soils and plantings sequester carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere where it impacts global warming. Urban agriculture, orchards, and perennial plantings also offer natural shade - reducing ambient temperatures and thermal hot spots that plague cities, especially in the summer months.
The small scale farming that takes place in cities relies primarily on hand tools, rototillers, lawnmowers, and small tractors. It is work done primarily by people, not machines. It is labor-intensive, not capital intensive. Established urban farmers (and gardeners), with their noses to the soil and their butts to the sky, have an intimate knowledge of their soil, weeds, insects, the weather, and the timing of their planting, watering, harvesting, etc. They understand from experience the behaviors, balances, and interconnections that keep an urban ecology healthy and productive. As such, most production follows organic practices, which are less harmful to the land, animals, kids, neighbors, and consumers.
Living among, not distanced from, a nicely maintained city plot full of vegetables, or flowers, or berry bushes, or trees, or a flock of ducks can be uplifting. It reestablishes our connection to (and dependence on) nature – its seasonal cycles and complex organic processes. Such awareness too often gets lost in an urban setting. And once lost, we start not caring in any deep abiding way. We forfeit our sense of wonder. We also forfeit our sensitivity to the connection between our own health and that of the urban ecosystem. And this brings us to the concept of community.
Urban agriculture because it is visible, accessible, and shareable enriches neighborhoods. Young adults, in particular, are increasingly attracted to walkable urban spaces and to places where they can farm themselves or support local food and farming efforts. They bring with them talents, investments, families, and permanence – all the right stuff for placemaking. The Urbandale neighborhood on Lansing’s eastside is a good example of this trend. Managed plantings are replacing trash-filled yards and abandoned lots. With this change comes a sense of pride and commitment to a neighborhood that once was decidedly marginal. A new wave of friendships, stories, and histories will join together with older ones and help hold people in place.
Because urban agriculture is about raising food and feeding people in place, it is also about social responsibility and equity. Good food requires fairness and shared decision-making – in short, the absence of domination and exploitation (https://nffc.net/what-we-do/food-sovereignty/). The shorter our distances, the more obvious our connections as well as our ability to understand and enable the power of “we.”
We as a community do not farm well if our neighbors lack access to production resources and decent employment opportunities. We as a community do not eat well if our neighbors go hungry. We as a community do not plan well if our neighbors have little say in how we design and manage our institutions and urban development.
Clearly, urban agriculture cannot be held responsible for all of this. But it is one piece of a larger sustaining and hopefully regenerative system. Neither is urban agriculture a call for isolationism and self-sufficiency. The act of raising food – a basil plant on the porch or a 1/4 acre plot of salad greens or a hoop house of salad greens – offers insight into food’s role as a connector. Food literally and figuratively connects us to our bodies, our health, our families, the environment, cultural traditions, neighbors, communities, businesses, politics, and the world at large.
Food binds us into a living system, whose wellbeing is of a piece with our own. We have only to remember that the pollution created upstream impacts those living downstream to know that this is so – that our lives in place extend beyond ourselves. Urban agriculture helps to feed this mindfulness.
A shared role in Urban Agriculture
Urban agriculture and the production of good food are “we” efforts (not dissimilar to the flattening of the COVID-19 curve). While they have much to offer us, we have much to offer them, in turn. Farming is hard and forever work, and urban farmers, despite their skills and tenacity, are vulnerable – not just to the weather, but to out-of-date zoning ordinances, to the absence of supportive institutions, to the sense that food is a 24/7 certainty, to a nation that awards scale and convenience at all costs. As the pandemic exposes large flaws in our current food system and strips us of our complacency, we are in a unique position to work for change. Those of us who eat and who live in community with others might want to consider these possibilities:
Get to know Lansing farmers. The Lansing Urban Farm Project’s Lansing Grown campaign is working to make urban farmers and farms less vulnerable - more visible and secure. Read about them on LUFP’s website (https://www.lufp.org/our-farmers) and keep up with their activities on Facebook (facebook@lansinggrown). Look for the locally-crafted Lansing Grown logo on their produce and remember the many ways urban food and farming affect our lives.
Buy food directly from urban farmers. Take the time to visit an urban farm and purchase seasonal produce at the farm. Take your children. Food doesn’t get much fresher than that, and you can see for yourself how it is grown. Continue to shop at farmer's markets, join CSAs, make bulk purchases (e.g., tomatoes). Consider contracting with an urban farmer to supply produce for a public event or party. LUFP does this for its annual Harvest Gala - and you know how good that is.
Invest with (and in) Lansing farmers. We make investments every day in small business start-ups – bakeries, bars, restaurants. Why not urban farms? Extend a no-interest loan to an urban farmer, or better yet, underwrite a piece of needed equipment, a hoop house to extend the seasons, a packing shed, a cooler, a delivery van. Partner with an urban farmer to provide produce to those who are food insecure and to emergency feeding programs in a way that benefits everyone. Urban farms are as much small businesses as they are public service institutions.
Encourage more restaurants, food trucks, groceries to carry Lansing Grown produce and value-added products. Compliment those businesses that work with urban farmers and display the Lansing Grown label. Likewise, recommend that those businesses that do not, consider doing so. Talking points that explain the benefits of supporting urban agriculture and Lansing Grown farmers are available here https://docs.google.com/document/d/1v1Uzv5rCLBAuooFHsoegyjNxS9WjrA499cs37huhXMs/edit?usp=sharing
Don’t forget that farmers are not the only ones who make up the food system. As important as urban agriculture is, it is part of a larger food system. Local farms require skilled field workers. Local groceries require stockers, cashiers, and delivery workers. Local restaurants require chefs, bartenders, and food service workers. Local bakeries require bakers. They all have a vital part to play in delivering good food to a hungry city – and they are all neighbors. We can’t ignore their welfare any more than we can ignore the welfare of Lansing farmers. Learn more about their needs – especially now – and their role in the food system through organizations like the Restaurant Opportunity Center (http://rocmichigan.org/), the Refugee Development Center (https://refugeedevelopmentcenter.org/ ) and Voces de la Comunidad (https://neighborhoods.lansingmi.gov/586/Voces-De-La-Comunidad). A system that exploits people, the environment, and the welfare of future generations is not sustainable.
Support organizations that assist Lansing farmers and the urban food system. The Lansing Urban Farm Project is a 501c3 organization that is run entirely by volunteers. It is always in need of collaborators and contributing partners. Consider lending LUFP your skills and creative energies as we evolve and deepen the Lansing Grown campaign. Or consider joining the LUFP board, or consider donating on a one-time or regular basis to LUFP programs.
LUFP, of course, is not the only Lansing-based organization, agency, and institution working to improve the local food system. There are many – and they all would welcome your support (see the list below). Chew on it.
Stay well, stay safe, and stay actively involved in the welfare of your community.
1. Good Food is Healthy - It provides nourishment and enables people to thrive; Green - It was produced in a manner that is environmentally sustainable; Fair - No one along the supply chain was exploited for its creation; Affordable - All people have access to it. https://www.canr.msu.edu/michiganfood/index
2. Cash purchases were not tracked, but can be assumed to add another 50% to the total.