Urban Food Security: Satisfying cities' hidden hunger
Urban agriculture is sometimes critiqued as an inefficient use of space in the development community. Some think that vacant land should be put to its "highest and best use” in a way that stimulates more economic development than the sale of a few vegetables. Others argue that the amount of food grown in a small urban plot is not enough to feed a family. And while urban agriculture may never provide all the caloric needs of a household, some development organizations are promoting urban food production as a means to address the nutritional needs of urban inhabitants.
In the developing world, staple foods like maize, rice, wheat and sorghum provide the majority of calories in a daily diet. However, all of these crops require large tracts of land to produce enough to feed an entire city – it wouldn’t make sense for individual households to grow them on their small, urban plots. But calories aren’t everything. Hidden hunger, a condition in which caloric needs are met but adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals are not, can be just as detrimental to health, particularly for children.
For this reason, Helen Keller International’s Homestead Food Production trains women to grow year-round gardens of fruits, vegetables, poultry and small livestock. While the program operates primarily in villages, not cities per se, it has found success in encouraging women to cultivate small plots of land and improve their diets. In Bangladesh, households with gardens ate 1.6 times as many vegetables and 48 percent more eggs as households without (See chapter 21, page 148 in IFPRI's Million Fed).
Urban agricultural interventions have also targeted the nutritional needs of vulnerable populations, such as those affected by HIV/AIDS. The Urban Gardens Program for HIV/Aids Affected Women and Children began in Ethiopia in 2004. The USAID/Ethiopia funded program established school and community gardens in six cities: Adama, Addis Ababa, Awassa, Bahir Dar, Dessie, and Gondor. The program improved the food security of 110,000 women and children, and culminated in a conference entitled “Beyond Urban Gardens,” that sought to advance urban agriculture as a means of addressing urban food security. Although USAID/Ethiopia is no longer funding this specific program, some technical assistance and the gardens themselves are still available to urban growers.
These two examples demonstrate that urban nutrition can be improved through small plots of cultivated land. But why limit urban agriculture to land? Recent innovations demonstrate that a lack of horizontal space combined with a little human ingenuity can make for a very nutritious meal. Vertical gardens in Singapore, spirulina on rooftops in Bangkok, and Tilapia raised in the wastewater of Hanoi are all nutrient-dense food sources grown in underutilized and marginal urban areas.
Even though it may not make fiscal or logistic sense for households to grow enough corn for their daily porridge, urban agricultural initiatives that promote micro-nutrient dense foods can go far in addressing the needs of urban food security, particularly if they are implemented as part of a larger agricultural development strategy. The programs and initiatives above suggest that there is a space for urban agriculture within the conversation of agriculture based food security. Fruits, vegetables, livestock, fish, and algae can all be grown in cities and improve the nutritional outcomes of our increasingly urban world.
Marisol Pierce-Quinonez is a Knowledge and Learning Specialist working on USAID’s KDMD project. Marisol holds an MS in Agricultural Policy and an MA in Urban & Environmental Planning, both from Tufts University.