How Urban Farms Feed The Poor

One of the primary missions of urban farming is to provide local communities with access to clean, fresh produce.  It is no surprise then, to find that urban farmers have found various ways in which their farms and neighboring edible gardens can feed the poor—who have the least access to one of the most basic necessities.

There are many ways that people have conceived to connect the urban poor to fresh food grown in the communities in which they live. Some urban farmers have been able to support low-income families and the elderly by implementing programs that trade fresh produce for food stamps, while some programs connect donations of excess produce from neighbors’ backyards to local food banks.  Other urban farmers have started programs geared towards teaching young people skills to grow their own food and run their own produce stands.  In line with this trend, soup kitchens and food banks have started growing their own supply of produce to feed those in need.

Backyard Harvest

Even the most adamant salad eater would be at a loss if their first backyard garden yielded over 200 heads of lettuce in its first season.  After eating as many crispy green heads as our family and neighbors could take, most of us would probably toss this excess out into a compost pit to create the soil for next season’s more organized harvest. This was the predicament in which Amy Grey, a book designer based out of Moscow, Idaho, found herself in 2006.  However, instead of viewing her surplus as mere fuel for her compost, she took her excess produce and donated it to her local food bank, giving rise to what is now the successful non-profit, Backyard Harvest.
The concept of Backyard Harvest is so simple and easy—you connect people who have too much produce with people who don’t have enough.  You prevent waste, increase food security, and build community—all at once. Jessica Bearman, Backyard Harvest
Backyard Harvest donates food to local food banks and meal programs from three main sources:
  • surplus produce grown in people’s backyards
  • fruit and veg gleaned from community orchards
  • leftover crops from farmers’ fields which they are unable to sell
Six years after Amy’s bountiful lettuce harvest, over 129,870 lbs (58,908 kg) of fresh produce have been distributed to families and elderly people who lack access to fresh food.  Since its founding, Backyard Harvest has diversified its methods of distribution, which now reach beyond its original donations to city food banks to include rural food pantries.

Harvest Share Stand

In 2010, Backyard Harvest started the Harvest Share Stand in order to reach people directly by cutting out the need for food banks as middlemen.  Resembling a food stand that one might find at a local farmers market, the Harvest Share Stand is placed outside of food banks, offering food bank clients produce as well as easy-to-use recipes that incorporate the stand’s currently offered produce.  The person operating the stand also serves as a valuable resource by providing answers to any questions people may have about the food.

CSA program

Through contracts with a few local farmers who run CSA programs (community supported agriculture), Backyard Harvest has been able to secure CSA shares for a limited number of low income families.  These families receive a weekly box of farm-direct produce, costing them only $5 to $7, which they can pay in either cash or SNAP benefits (supplemental nutrition assistance program). “We really like this model because it supports local agriculture as well as lower income folks,” said Jessica.

Grow A Row

The newest addition to Backyard Harvest’s programs is the Grow a Row program which asks local farmers and gardeners to pledge an area of their growing space to grow food for low-income families. According to Jessica, the program has generated interest from farmers and gardeners of all different scales and experience levels. “One woman is starting a ‘mom’s garden’ with friends and plans to donate nearly all of what they grow,” said Jessica. Apart from increasing the amount of produce that Backyard Harvest will be able to distribute, Jessica is hopeful that by having a few committed plots of produce that they will be able to more accurately plan their programs for the amount of produce that will be available.

Shop The Market

Backyard Harvest also partakes in their local farmers markets by operating SNAP’s Shop The Market program which allows people to trade in food stamps and EBT credits for coupons that they can use at farmers’ stands.  This program connects food stamp beneficiaries with a large variety of fresh, local and nutritious produce.  Similar to the CSA program, Shop The Market creates a direct connection between farmers and financially strapped families, while keeping money within the community and supporting local agriculture.

Creating your own Backyard Harvest

In our interview, Jessica offered a few tips on how you can connect those with surplus food in your community with local food banks. “The first steps are to identify a place to bring the extra produce you collect—whether it is a food bank or a senior meal site or some other venue.  Sometimes these sites aren’t entirely ready to accept fresh produce (but more and more they are) and so you may need to start small. “Then you start to get the word out, so that friends, neighbors, community members, and local growers can start to donate their excess produce, too… Again, you might need to start small, but small things add up and matter. “  

Earthworks Urban Farm & the Capuchin Soup Kitchen

In the wake of the economic recession and massive exodus from Detroit—which has left entire neighborhoods reminiscent of ghost towns—the city has become an epicenter for urban agricultural movements.  Earthworks Urban Farm was created almost a decade before the economic crisis; and after the recession it has proven to be a valuable resource in keeping its community afloat. The origins of Earthworks can be traced back to 1997 when Brother Rick Samyn, a Capuchin monk who worked at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, saw the need to connect those who came into the kitchen with a source of clean produce. With the help of volunteers from Gleaners Community Food Bank—which had created its own urban farm behind its storefront—what originally began as a small edible garden grew into the 1.5 acre urban farm and apiary that Earthworks Urban Farm is today. Sponsored by the Capuchins—a religious order who follow the work of St. Francis of Assisi who worked with the poor and disenfranchised—the soup kitchen, and subsequently thriving urban farm, were founded on the principles of aiding the impoverished.  Since 1997, Earthworks has diversified the ways in which it has championed food justice in its community.

Project Fresh

In 2001, the farm collaborated with the Wayne County Department of Health to promote Project Fresh, a program which provides WIC participants (Women, Infants and Children—a government food subsidy)  with coupons which can be traded directly with local farmers for fresh produce.  A major pitfall for the program, however, was that many WIC participants lacked proper means of transportation, making it unlikely that they would access farmers directly.   Through its collaboration with the Department of Health, Earthworks was able to establish weekly produce stands in front of health clinics where both cash and Project Fresh coupons were accepted in exchange for produce harvested from Earthworks and other local Michigan farms.

Getting young people involved

Earthworks has also initiated two youth programs to educate the young members of their community on nutrition, farming and marketing techniques. The first program is called Growing Healthy Kids, which teaches children ages 5-11 the basics of gardening and nutrition, as well as environmental and cultural awareness. The second program is called Youth Farm Stand, in which teens ages 12-17 are taught how providing their community with access to food can promote healthy living practices.  Participants of this program learn how to farm and manage a food stand. They also learn about nutrition and food preparation, and how to preserve excess produce to create value added items which they can sell. Within the first year that youth farm stands were established in the neighborhoods surrounding the urban farm, the program was able to distribute organic produce to over 780 food stamp eligible adults.  In 2009, Earthworks sectioned off a small plot in the garden to be completely planned, farmed, and managed by teens in the Youth Farm Stand program, in which participants received a stipend for their work. Both programs are free and offered to those within the farm and soup kitchen’s immediate community in the surrounding two miles.  Shane Bernardo, the outreach coordinator at Earthworks, said that this proximity is emphasized due to the restrictions of transportation in Detroit. “If you are looking at the distance of two miles—a lot of youth and families aren’t going to walk that distance, and so we found out that in order to have more consistent participation, that we had to provide transportation,” said Shane. Due to the limited resources available to Earthworks, to extend the invitation to participate in these programs beyond two miles was not a reality.  They do, however, offer advice to anyone who wishes to start up a youth program in their own community.

Sowing the seeds of a healthy community

To further promote growing food in the community, Earthworks has partnered with the Garden Resource Program Collaborative to supply families, as well as community and school gardens, with over one hundred thousand seedlings grown each season for urban gardeners to plant. In 2008, Earthworks turned its efforts away from market distribution to focus on supplying the soup kitchen with fresh produce.  In the last year alone, the farm produced over 14,000 lbs (6,350 kg) of produce with which they were able to supply 80% of the Soup Kitchen’s fruits and vegetables.  Today, the remaining markets stem primarily from their Youth Farm Stand program.   Photo Credit:Backyard Harvest, Inc., Earthworks Urban Farm/Capuchin Soup Kitchen

2020 Goals: Healthy Protien