Fighting food insecurity through urban farming
By Richard Bednarski
On a recent sunny morning in Reno, Nevada, volunteers worked diligently to harvest fresh vegetables from plots of rich soil, collecting tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers while a few farm goats bleated behind them. The freshly harvested produce would be washed, sorted, and stored in a solar-powered refrigerator until ending up on the dinner plates of local families.
But this is no typical farm. The five-acre plot of land is situated in the middle of a busy suburban neighborhood, juxtaposed near a Reno intersection where cars almost constantly whiz by.
Dubbed the “Park Farm,” the operation is run by the non-profit Reno Food Systems (RFS) as a demonstration farm to train others in organic farming practices and as a means to provide local restaurants and community groups with fresh organic produce. Now in its fifth season, the farm is funded through grants and community donations and sponsorships.
Recently, RFS established a food justice program dedicated to feeding thousands of meals per season to people experiencing food insecurity, something climate change and the pandemic have both exacerbated.
“We have a lot of communities in our area who are in what people call food deserts or food apartheid,” said Meagan O’Farrell, director and mobile market manager of RFS. “Access to nutritious food is a basic human right, and everyone deserves access.”
O’Farrell said she uses the term food apartheid because neighborhoods without access to fresh food were built by design, the outcome of housing and supermarket redlining that has left many urban neighborhoods, particularly low-income and those dominated by people of color, lacking easy access to fresh food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2021 more than 33 million people lived in food-insecure homes. And that could get worse. The International Panel on Climate Change estimates food insecurity will be one of the most significant and widespread impacts of climate change.
RFS is not alone in trying to get ahead of the problem. In New York, Soul Fire Farms has been working since 2010 to address food insecurity, describing themselves as “an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system.” In Arizona, the Native Food Alliance advocates for Indigenous communities with a focus on growing native foods.
David Sinclair, a professor and author of a 2020 article about food deserts and viable solutions, said urban farms such as the one operated by RFS are an essential part of erasing the disparity that creates food insecurity in disadvantaged communities. Food should be considered equivalent to a basic utility, with urban farms and food distribution systems playing essential roles, he believes.
“We need to think of it in a holistic way; it’s almost like climate change,” said David Sinclair. “It takes a large scale intervention to address it.”
RFS donates some of the food produced on its farm to the Women and Children’s Center of the Sierras (WACCS), which helps make sure it ends up on the plates of people living in one of the lowest-income areas of town.
“This is like their one-stop shop for them to get what they need,” said Junella Zuniga, WACCS community advocate. She said typically the low-income neighborhoods have easy access only to canned and processed foods that lack the nutrition needed for good health.
Reno resident Alejandra Melecio has been relying on food from WACCS for about two years. The mother of four said the ability to feed fresh vegetables to her children is invaluable. Her kids particularly enjoy the carrots and potatoes.
“It has been very beneficial to be able to provide fresh vegetables to my children,” she said.