Alternative Food Research: Farming the Deserts

Given all of the attention on alternative food right now – from backyard chickens to guerilla gardeners to illegal rooftop beekeeping – I decided to start a series of posts on research examining the sociology and ecology of this movement.

Nathan McClintock, a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley, studies the potential of urban agriculture to enhance social justice for economically impoverished neighborhoods.

His research focuses on Oakland’s so-called “food deserts,” areas where healthy, fresh food is rare.  Cheap, industrial food such as fast food and heavily processed snack foods, however, is common in these neighborhoods.

Food deserts arise from difficulties developing and sustaining supermarkets in low-income areas or the net loss of supermarkets to the suburbs.  McClintock’s research investigates the potential for urban farming to improve access to affordable, healthy food in these areas.

Using spatial mapping techniques, McClintock inventoried vacant and underutilized public land in Oakland to assess these parcels’ potential contribution to urban food production.  He estimates that converting suitable spaces to agriculture could supply five to 10 percent of Oakland’s fresh produce needs.

McClintock’s field research also considers the influence of urban agriculture on the ecology of urban environments.  Urban farms can boost air quality, control flooding, provide a sink for urban wastes, cool cities, buffer against climate change, and increase the diversity of insect and bird species in urban areas.

He also proposes that the green spaces created by urban agriculture can raise property values and make communities safer.

His research is currently being used as reference by the Oakland Food Policy Council, of which McClintock is a member.  The council is trying to determine how to make urban agriculture in Oakland’s food deserts a reality.

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(Image courtesy of Addictive Picasso at flickr under a Creative Commons license)

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