Grub Street Chicago
We agree that grocery stores are crucial, but is it necessary to hate on urban farms?
In general, the attitude toward inner-city Detroit's urban-farming renaissance over the past few years has been ebullient. Sure, it's deplorable that poor city residents found themselves in the position of being without reliable access to fresh food, but props to them for growing their own! A documentary chronicling the city's hundreds of community gardens has won numerous awards, and it seems every few months we read another article celebrating Motor City's conversion to Farm City. But now along comes this recent story in Good, provocatively titled "Forget Urban Farms. We Need a Wal-Mart."
Richard Longworth, a fellow at the policy think tank the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, argues that residents of inner-city Detroit growing their own produce is anything but positive: "Urban farms are nothing less than a symptom of civic catastrophe, a desperate last measure for people trapped in destitute neighborhoods that have become food deserts." These kind of small farms are not the future of agriculture, he rails, but merely "niche" producers that "will never meet global demand," and are costly enough to price out all but urbanites with lots of money and the resources to figure out how to prepare haricots verts.
As we see it, though, urban farming in Detroit isn't about meeting global demand; it's about meeting local demand, and community gardens most definitely help with that. What's more, if people are raising their own food (or buying it affordably from neighbors), it's a different matter than privileged urban dwellers going to the Greenmarket and paying $5 a pound for biodynamic fingerling potatoes. It seems like Longworth (who has written a book that, in part, examines the disappearance of family farms) is using Detroit to make a complicated point about agriculture that, to our ears, isn't totally a fit.
Longworth's next argument, that the city of Detroit should allow Wal-Mart free rein to open stores in the suburbs if the megaretailer agrees to put local grocery stores into the shuttered supermarkets that dot inner Detroit, is an interesting one. Clearly, having grocery stores within city limits — accessible even to people without cars — would be a tremendous step forward. In fact, wouldn't it be great if a person could complement her haul of Swiss chard by easily being able to buy some chicken and rice to go along with it? Longworth might be right that what inner Detroit really needs is grocery stores, but he makes a mistake in discounting the urban farms that are, at this moment, giving many people fresh food and a source of income. Instead of thinking in terms of either there's urban farming or supermarkets, wouldn't the ideal scenario involve having both?
Forget Urban Farms. We Need a Wal-Mart
Photo: Courtesy Brooklyn Grange