Local food was once considered the purview of consumers and small-scale producers. Recently, policymakers, including those in cities, began embracing local food systems as a solution to a myriad of urban problems, including a lack of green space and access to healthy foods. As part of this shift, cities and other jurisdictions have embraced agricultural production in the urban environment. For example, New York City has developed specific policy objectives for the local food environment, including facilitating the expansion of urban agriculture. At the local and state levels, however, the policies are often based on a vision of how food might be grown in a city, and not the feasibility or viability of such ventures. Nor do the policies consider the actual contribution urban farms might make to urban food supplies.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that urban farming is increasing. Yet, our analysis of 2007 census data (Rogus and Dimitri in the themed issue) indicates that the top 50 MSAs (in terms of population) contain just 6% of all US farmland. The question of how much food urban farms can supply is critical, given the small amount of land devoted to it. Because of competing demands for scarce real estate, land costs in many urban areas are high. Worth contemplating is whether diverting land from more “valuable” uses, such as urban housing or office space, to food production may not make sense, given the low contribution of urban farming to food supplies.

In addition, many urban farms have claimed nonprofit status, operating as educational facilities rather than commercial farms. This raises the question whether urban farms are producing food or a less-easy-to measure good, such as knowledge about food and agriculture among urban residents. Perhaps more importantly to these urban farmers is that, by meeting the mission of educating consumers about farming and a healthy diet, they view their efforts as a vehicle to change consumer behavior about their food choices.

The themed issue on urban agriculture explores many aspects of urban agriculture, and even the most enthusiastic supporters raise questions about the feasibility of urban farming. Others, such as DeLind, Weissman, and Reynolds and Cohen, argue that urban farming may unwittingly promote existing social inequities in the food system. The themed issues provide much to think about when it comes to the topic of urban agriculture.

Agriculture in urban and peri-urban areas in the United States: Highlights from the Census of Agriculture
Stephanie Rogus and Carolyn Dimitri

This paper is currently freely available online

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