Five years ago, Tyrean Lewis began growing tomatoes, basil, parsley and onions in 10 buckets in the Kingsway West neighborhood of St. Louis. As a father of five children making less than $50,000 annually, Lewis saw urban farming as a way of feeding his family nutritious and locally grown food.
Lewis is not the only city dweller reaping the economic and health benefits of growing his own food. Urban agriculture is practiced by 800 million people worldwide, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In the U.S., about 41 million people are food insecure, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit organization. In places where food security is a pressing concern, some low-income families are turning to gardening to help feed themselves.
Growing in buckets
In 2018, Missouri’s food insecurity rate was 14.2%, which was higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lewis turned to urban agriculture not only to avoid the high costs of fresh food, but also to educate his children about a healthy lifestyle, he said.
“It is a good thing for me … to just educate people, like my kids and neighbors, and teach urban people a rural way of life,” Lewis said.
After a few months, he expanded his garden by leasing out land in his neighborhood for $5 a month through a garden lease program offered by the city. He grows a variety of vegetables ranging from cherry red tomatoes to okra to peppers.
Lewis said he uses the money he saves on fresh food to cover other household expenses.
‘Food security starts right here’
Kamina Loveless lives in East St. Louis, Illinois, where the poverty rate is about 43%. For 20 years, parts of her neighborhood had only one grocery store and a few corner stores, Loveless said.
Earning about $11,000 per year after her work hours were reduced, Loveless had very few options for buying healthy food.
“It hits really hard here. People feel it, and we only have access to local corner stores here and nothing about that is fresh,” Loveless said. “Imagine just always going to stores and all you get is liquor or other sweet stuff.”
The only grocery store in the area that sold fresh produce was pricey and lacked variety of fresh food, she said.
Loveless found the solution to her problem in her backyard. She began growing vegetables about 10 years ago after she stumbled upon a greenhouse near her home. With the help of her family, she started a farmers market in the city. Word about the role of urban farming spread within the community.
“We started going out there, we organized the whole thing and we started growing food,” Loveless said. “Food security starts right here, right within the community.”
In 2018, two new grocery stores opened in East St. Louis, eliminating the food desert in the city.
“Low-income families such as myself and friends close to me are really excited … because now people are starting to say, ‘I’ve seen what these this group of people have done, now let me go back to my backyard and grow my own food as a low-income family because I don’t have the extra hundred dollars to try to come up and make a meal’,” Loveless said.
Weeding out challenges
Urban farming is not free from difficulties. Urban growers have to face a number of hurdles, ranging from pests to policy complications.
It requires about 20 to 30 hours of work per week, Loveless said, and she relies on volunteers and collaborative effort for labor. Her biggest challenges in the garden include operating equipment and finding volunteers for extra help.
“There’s so much uncertainty and risk involved in farming,” said Melissa Vatterott, food and farm director at the environmental advocacy group Missouri Coalition for the Environment. “Then when you add in climate change, where we’re seeing intense rainfalls followed by long periods of drought, it’s really throwing off food productivity.”
Vatterott said urban growers should start out on a small scale and then partner with local sources in the community to buy the land that they practice farming on.
“It’s always better to own the land — because you never know when someone might buy it from you,” Vatterott said.
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment is pushing for policy reforms to make urban farming easier and more accessible. In response to that effort, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson signed a bill in 2017 that would allow urban farmers to possess more chickens in their backyards.
The Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture was formed in Columbia 10 years ago, and its mission is to provide hands-on learning opportunities for urban growers. The center offers the “Opportunity Gardens” program, which is a garden mentoring program for low-income families.
“It’s a really relevant tool, especially for families with low income because the barriers to entry are relatively low,” said Adam Saunders, co-founder of the center. “You need some space, you need some sun, you need seeds and water and some time.”
Urban agriculture has fewer barriers to entry and yields high food production when managed correctly, Saunders said.
And as urban farming grows, its practitioners are learning and sharing new tools and techniques that have made it possible to grow food in seemingly unlikely places.
“Now you have vertical guards, you have hydrogardens and even robot apps for planting,” Loveless said. “People are using social media, networking and other collaborative efforts and are finding different ways to diversify urban agriculture.”