Farming Inner-City Community Action

This past Saturday I was online researching field trip opportunities for my students when I ran across an article on Wheat Street Gardens, a “four-acre organic urban farm” in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta, the same neighborhood in which I teach. This inner-city farm is one of five sites established in the Atlanta area by the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, a provider of organic food and Agri-education founded in 2006 by K. Rashid Nuri, a graduate of Harvard who served in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration.

While uncommon, urban agriculture is nothing new. In the early 1800s, rapid industrialization and urbanization in the U.S. encouraged the creation of urban farms to meet local demand. And during World War I, urban farms were cultivated to sustain global food production hampered by war in Europe. By the 1950s, urban farming declined. But recently, urban agriculture has been resurging in cities like Detroit, Oakland and New York – cities with lower-income residents and a lack of access to fresh foods. Throughout the nation, urban farming is gaining considerable strength as a new movement, particularly in the context of the ever-increasing demands of consumers and everyday citizens for food that is organic, local, and leaves a minimal carbon footprint.

While urban agriculture can have a positive effect on the environment and can provide fresh produce to citizens lacking access, it can also have a positive effect on the communities it serves by providing an effective model for community collective action that could be applied to other areas of concern within the inner-city community.

The historical and socio-cultural significance of urban farms in inner-city neighborhoods is not lost on Nuri and others pushing for urban farming. In an interview given by Creative Loafing, Nuri said, “I’m a child of the 1960s. Back then, we were talking about nation building. In order to build a nation, you’ve got to be able to feed, clothe, and shelter your people. So I decided that I wanted to learn everything about food.”

The urban neighborhoods in which Nuri’s and others’ urban farms are located are often majority-black (Wheat Street Gardens is in the Old Fourth Ward/ Sweet Auburn neighborhood, in walking distance of The King Center and MLK’s childhood home). These neighborhoods are often low-income, contain vacant lots, and do not have convenient access to grocery stores, much less organic food suppliers. Given these constraints, many residents find it difficult to provide healthy food to their families.

But, Wheat Street Gardens and Truly Living Well do not just provide food; they also provide a framework for collective community action. In order to bring about this particular site, Nuri first had to have an idea and then take that idea to several actors – ordinary citizens, the city of Atlanta, council members and non-profit or federal programs that provide funding for such projects, like the Environmental Protection Agency. And once the groundwork was laid and these actors were in place, the site had to be developed (and has to be continually managed) by members of the community and public servants. The creation of Wheat Street Gardens illustrates how the push for urban farming builds collective action by tying together individual citizens with members of the local government to leverage the resources of local and national actors.

After reading about Wheat Street Gardens, I hopped into my car to see, first-hand, if it would be suitable for a field trip. It was around 2pm in the middle of that Saturday and an eclectic mix of adults and kids were tending to the site. Not only was Nuri there toting buckets full of soil between beds of arugula and blackberries but so was Kwanza Hall, Atlanta’s District 2 City Council Member. There were no cameras, no journalists, just a group of engaged citizens and public servants working to make their community better.

Not only will I take my third graders to Wheat Street Gardens, but I will also develop a Social Studies lesson plan that will enable the students to come to their own conclusions about the power of local community and government action in solving community problems. This urban farming site provides an excellent model.

Photo Credit: Matthew Kevin Clair

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Matthew Clair

Matthew Clair is a PhD student in sociology at Harvard. He regularly contributes to The Diverse Arts Project.

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