Foodies and the War on Urban Farming

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a dramatic surge in attacks on urban farms from clueless (and nasty) city authorities. Farmers and gardeners from all corners of the country have been ordered to uproot their front gardens, farmed empty lots, and other food growing plots, sometimes in very troubling and cloudy circumstances. In some instances, the victims have won, maintaining the right to keep growing their food, while in others, they’ve lost; sometimes tragically, as in the case of a woman who was forced to watch city officials bulldoze her front yard before she even had a chance to go to court over it.

What’s going on here?

As I’ve written before, people have been growing food in urban environments for decades. Low-income communities have needed farming opportunities to supplement their diets and their communities, and some community gardens are actually quite old. Due to the racialisation of poverty in the US, many of these communities are also filled with people of colour, and they’re situated in areas historically targeted for redlining and other discriminatory real estate practices. Many don’t have grocery stores with fresh produce, and may provide limited access to fresh, affordable food.

Growing food at home was about being able to feed families, to preserve food for future use, to eat something fresh and delicious. It was also about growing foods that might not be in stock at the store and preserving culinary traditions, as people from different regions of the country, and the world, resettled in new neighbourhoods and found themselves missing the foods of home. The ability to grow your own food should be a basic right, and yet, it isn’t.

In part, that’s because there’s a whole industry heavily dedicated to forcing people to buy food through commercial sources. Industrial agriculture has an obvious vested interest in limiting urban farming, and has played a heavy role in pressuring cities to create unfriendly policies about land use and produce production. But the issue is a bit more complicated than that, as it always is, because we haven’t yet considered the foodie.

Thanks to a growing understanding of the deep problems with the agricultural system in the US, the food movement is growing, and a big part of the movement is the consumption of fresh produce, especially that produced locally and in environmentally-friendly ways. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and in fact, the push to bring food closer to its roots, so to speak, offers numerous benefits, including growing availability of fresh food. The movement has also, of course, coopted and appropriated traditions from other cultures and community, which is why there’s now an urban farming movement, as foodies, hipsters, and yuppies take the poor skills practiced for decades and turn them into backyard gardens, chicken coops, and a social trend instead of a matter of survival.

Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with people growing food: this is a right that all people, including hipsters, should have. But the food movement’s decision to get involved in farming and gardening came with a cost, as the increase in activity created a higher profile for those producing their own food, and it created class stratifications among the ranks of people growing food and raising livestock in urban environments. Suddenly, cities felt moved to regulate more closely both because this was an activity that was happening more that was often subject to limited regulations, and because they suddenly realized that if they didn’t do something fast, the poor people might get uppity.

Notably, many of the regulations passed by cities in concerns to urban gardening don’t affect hipsters, because the focus is often on ‘nuisances.’ Thus, livestock numbers are limited when they weren’t before, forcing some low-income families to get rid of their small flocks or species they’re suddenly no longer allowed to have, even when neither was an issue before. Likewise, gardening may be more tightly regulated: one of the reasons cited for forcing people to destroy their gardens, for example, has been that they’re not ‘appropriate’ or that they’re ‘messy’ and thus destroy property values or create an eyesore.

Naturally, the well-manicured, artfully folksy creations of the movers and shakers of the food movement get a pass (indeed, some of them are actually involved in crafting regulations, which they claim make urban farming more sustainable and healthy). The people targeted by anti-urban farming activities tend to be low-income, and they tend to belong to neighbourhoods inhabited primarily by people of colour. This puts them in a position where it can be difficult to fight back, as they have neither the time nor the resources to seek legal representation or attempt to work with city officials to resolve the complaint.

Even more chillingly, many cities won’t act on a municipal regulation until someone files a complaint. Which means that for each garden destroyed, someone had to complain about it, and inevitably, it’s reasonable to start asking questions about the identities of the complainants. Are they people in the neighbourhood who suddenly don’t like the farming that’s been happening there for decades? Unlikely. Are they gentrifiers who don’t like the reality of urban farming when it’s conducted in an environment that hasn’t been sanitized and hipsterized? Much more probable.

More and more cities are experiencing highly invasive gentrification, paired with a rise in urban farming as part of the overall craft movement in the United States. It is not a coincidence that as low-income communities are squeezed by gentrification and hipsters promote urban farming, their very way of life is under attack; practices that occurred without comment for years are now suddenly a problem, in a highly suspicious and frustrating turn of events.