Florida Food Policy Council

Follow Up: May 2020 Florida Food Forum "Policy and Urban Agriculture"

31 May 2020 4:00 PM | Administrator (Administrator)

Follow Up: May Florida Food Forum 

Policy and Urban Agriculture

If you were unable to attend the meeting, the full presentation is available online here.  

To keep the conversation going, please visit our forum on Policy and Urban Agriculture here to add your thoughts and comments. 

On May 29th, the Florida Food Forum on Policy and Urban Agriculture was led by James Jiler, Founder and former Executive Director of Urban GreenWorks in Miami. In his presentation, James explored the relevance of urban agriculture in the U.S. and specifically in Florida while discussing how to build a functioning and diverse system to address food security in food insecure urban centers.

“We are now looking at this global issue of centralization of food systems and very long supply chains, and we are seeing it completely disrupted by our pandemic,” said James. “It’s really a wakeup call for us to start re-analyzing and refocusing on what resiliency means in the time of climate change and pandemics, and what food security really means.”

James noted that as of 3 years ago, this is the first time in history where more people, are now living in urban centers as opposed to rural habitats. Additionally, by 2030, 2 out of 3 people will live in urban centers. For the near and far future, it is clear that we are really looking at a global urban environment that is going to be directing human lives.

“You can’t have a stable civilization when people are in need of food," said James. "Civilizations have always collapsed because of a lack of either food, water or environmental stability.”

When it comes to food in urban centers, there are a number of important things to consider. People spend more money on urban food as it is 3 to 37% more costly, and in all of the urban centers in the United States, 3 out of 10 people are food insecure said James. “That means they don’t have access to healthy foods which keeps them healthy. And we are currently looking at an obesity rate in the United States of about 40% and still rising.”  

How have urban farms changed over the century?

“Urban farms and urban agriculture really have their roots in the victory gardens going back to the Depression era, and actually, before that during WWI. We produced almost 50-80% of all our fresh fruits and vegetables on home gardens during that time. And then after the Depression and leading into WWII, people began to abandon the gardens thinking they were food secure again, and then we saw a trajectory of centralization and globalization of food processing,” James explained.

“When we look at urban agriculture in the U.S., we can really begin in 1977 when the USDA started allocating American dollars through cooperative extension services to assist low-income people to start growing and preserving their own food…By 1989, we had over 200,000 gardeners producing food on 800 acres of urban farmland in 23 major cities.”

James added that for every $1 dollar of USDA investment, which was $1.5 million dollars, growers grew $6 of food. However, in 1993 the program lost funding as the USDA wanted nonprofits to take over the federal cost of promoting these urban farms. With public outcry, by 1994 the USDA decided to allocate another $3 million under the U.S. Food Security Act which pushed the idea that urban farms had many benefits for producers and consumers. This also linked into SNAP and WIC, "where you had the onset of farmers markets, where urban producers had markets where people could actually use food stamps and other kinds of vouchers to produce foods in low-income neighborhoods that was freshly grown.”

What are the benefits of urban farms?

There are environmental services and educational services that urban farms. "Most urban farms with public money or foundation money offer workshops; they bring in schools, they bring in neighborhood children, they grow food to help families in need, and they give jobs to help people in the community."

Through James’ experience running a 7-acre plot in a low-income area in Liberty city, he realized that at some point a decision needs to be made on whether to provide a service to the city or to try to make money.

“The difference between a community garden and an urban farm is that urban farms demand full-time staffing to constantly be growing for to generate an income for the farm staff. And then of course, if you have additional benefits like you are providing educational programs or taking food to elderly centers or to healthcare centers, or if you are distributing food to food banks, then you are cutting into your profits…So, it’s kind of a delicate balance. How do you generate income for people running these farms at the same time providing social benefits?”

This brings up the question: Is there a responsibility for government and policy to promote urban farms as part of an integrated infrastructure in different cities throughout the U.S. in light of all these services they provide?

“We’re not looking at urban agriculture as a cure-all, but what we are looking at are different ways in which we can inspire urban agriculture to be a full part of the integral functioning capacity of an urban center.”

How do urban farms affect health and environment?

“Just because you provide certain cities and communities with access to fresh affordable food, it does not mean they are going to consume it.”

It is estimated that $140 to $190 billion dollars per year is spent on diet related health issues such as: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. If $190 billion goes into treating the disease but nothing goes into the prevention of disease, "What if you allocated this money into areas like urban farms where people can learn about growing food and then actually eating the food that they grow?” asked James.

One of the easiest ways to change diet, habit, and addictive nature to certain kinds of food that are unhealthy is by involving people in the actual act of growing food through urban farming.

In addition, urban farms provide valuable environmental services such as capturing and slowing stormwater run-off, maintaining biodiversity, cooling cities, detoxifying soil, and mitigating outputs from industrial farming systems.

What lessons are we learning from the COVID-19 pandemic? How do we move forward?

According to James, the following have become clear through the pandemic, “We need shorter supply chains; we need decentralized food processing (i.e. Slaughterhouses); we need more local access; we need direct farmer to consumer relationships via food marts and markets; and polyculture systems are not just environmentally resilient, they are financially resilient.”

Going forward, when designing policies that bring urban agriculture into the infrastructure of planning systems that are involved in developing suburban urban areas, James notes the importance of looking at three policy perspectives: the social perspective, associated with subsistence oriented types of urban agriculture, the economic perspective, particularly related to market oriented types of urban agriculture, and the ecological perspective, referring to types of urban agriculture that have a multi-functional character.

Looking at and adopting implemented models in other cities and around the world is another way to better Florida’s urban food system. In cities like Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Seattle, partnerships between the city and local farms, food banks, resident and community gardens has enabled cities to effectively mobilize people to grow and share food while providing education and facilitating dialogue on the topic of urban agriculture.

What are the national and local needs for urban farming?

“The national needs for urban farming are this: urban farmers need crop insurance and loans; we have to look at our public health investments; we need to keep facilitating the SNAP and WIC vouchers through farmers markets; we need to look at secured systems of land tenure and water rights; and all suburban and peri-urban urban planning has to have urban farms as part of infrastructure improvement,” said James.

As for local needs, “We need to distinguish an urban farm from a community garden, understand full and part time staff as a necessary component; understand land tenure agreements (best use versus commercial use); integrate urban farms into policy food action and community health planning; integrate urban farms into regional planning tied to state planning; and allocate government funding based on meeting the 3 perspectives—social, economic and ecological.”

In regards to funding, in the 2018 USDA Farm Bill, the USDA established a new office for Urban Agriculture and innovative production. In 2020, they are putting out 3 million worth of grants: $1 million dollars for planning projects, food access, education, business and star-up costs, and development of policies related to zoning and other needs for urban farming; and $2 million dollars for implementation projects, urban indoor and agriculture practices that serve farmers.

“We are moving in this direction but we really need to integrate this movement with policy planners as a food security hub of every major city,” said James. “Florida is behind the curve, and I hope moving forward we can keep this discussion going.”

With the conclusion of the presentation, the forum was opened up for questions.

If you would like to ask James a question, he can be reached at: jamesjiler3@gmail.com.

For other questions or comments, reach out to us at info@flfpc.org.


USDA Grants and Loans for Farmers

UF/IFAS Extension: How to Establish an Urban Agriculture Ordinance

Tampa Bay Article: FL Legislature approves right to grow veggie gardens

Ecology Florida Article: COVID-19 Pandemic Reveals Frailty of America’s Food System

Coalition of Community Gardens, Tampa Bay


Bio: James Jiler is the Founder and former Executive-Director of Urban GreenWorks, a Miami-based non-profit that provides environmental programs and green job training to incarcerated men and women, youth remanded by court to drug rehab and at-risk high-school youth in low-income neighborhoods. The product is more than the formation of hard skills; GreenWorks provides an environmental artscape that blends science education, horticulture therapy and vocational training as a way to connect people to nature, and subsequently to themselves and their community. In addition the organization creates programs for communities plagued by poor access to fresh food, blighted and neglected open space, low urban tree cover, and an under-employed population of young adults. James is also an adjunct professor at Florida International University (FIU) teaching Global Environmental Studies at inner-city high schools.

James holds a Masters Degree in Forestry and Social Ecology from Yale University and is the former director of The Horticultural Society of New York’s GreenHouse Program, a jail-to-street horticulture program at New York City’s jail complex on Rikers Island. As a National model, Greenhouse has been and continues to be replicated by other jurisdictions seeking to lower the high rate of recidivism plaguing the U.S. criminal justice system.

James also works as a landscape designer and has created gardens and landscapes for historic land-marked buildings in New York City, private clients and luxury buildings in the metro area, and for schools and community groups in Baltimore, New Haven, Ahmedabad, India and Miami, Fl. In Miami he specializes in the design and installation of environmentally beneficial gardens, buildings and edible urban landscapes.

James is author of the book Doing Time in the Garden (New Village Press, 2006), which details the GreenHouse approach to rehabilitation and explores the role of gardening in jails and prisons around the country. He is currently working on a book titled “Food In Security” which examines urban food systems around and outside the US. He has appeared on NPR, CBS Sunday Morning Show, Japan, France and Canadian TV, Radio, and two recent documentaries called the “Healing Gardens” and “Dirt: The Movie” detailing his work at Rikers. In September 2012 he gave a TED talk at the Coconut Grove TEDx conference where he was a recipient of the first annual HOPE Prize.

Prior to his work in prison, James spent time working as an urban ecologist in Baltimore, New Haven, and India; and spent 6-years living in Kathmandu, Nepal working with ecological farming systems in the Himalayas and teaching at the University of Kathmandu.

Forum Host: Dell deChant is the Associate Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of South Florida and a member of the Board of Directors at the Florida Food Policy Council.

Disclaimer: The views of the presenters do not represent the views of the Florida Food Policy Council. We are a forum for the offering and sharing of information and encourage diversity and communication within the food system.

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