5. Growing options to food stamps

USDA urban garden

The La Montanita Co-op Veteran Farm Project (VFP) funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Specialty Crop Grant program provides veterans workshops on sustainable farming practices, hands-on gardening and farming experience.  The VFP gardens will supply a stand at the Veteran Affairs (VA) Farmers’ Market once a week over the summer, feed project participants and fill Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes for low-income families in Albuquerque, New Mexico. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

Can urban gardening help the poor become more food secure?


In 2012, the USDA estimated that two in ten U.S. households, or about 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children, did not have enough food. There are many federal, state and local programs to aid those who are food insecure, but the largest and most costly of these is the federal Food Stamp Program (FSP) recently rebranded as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which spent about $78 billion that year.  

“My critique should not be construed as an argument for the discontinuance of food stamps, as this food aid is a vital resource for poor people,” explains alumna Ann James (Ph.D. ’14), who researched food assistance programs and urban gardening for her doctoral dissertation. “Instead, my critique is intended to highlight the need for alternatives in the long run.”

James’s statistical analysis shows that state-by-state, poverty, racism, and unemployment are all related to food insecurity and SNAP participation, and that a complex relationship persists over time. So what can be done? “If we think we must solve poverty, racism, and unemployment in order to provide food security we will not succeed. It is important that local people recognize how they can improve their own food security now without also having to tackle all the bigger issues,” she says.

If you take a different perspective on poverty, James explains, a good way to help poor people improve their own food security is to increase the sites of urban agriculture on vacant parcels, parklands, and buildings, especially in places of economic distress.  “I advocate for the widespread production and distribution of locally-grown, healthy food in distressed places. However, I do not mean to say that all poor people and/or households living in these places ought to be directly engaged in such efforts,” she says.  James used geospatial analysis to show the locations and overlap of vacant parcels and areas of economic distress in the Philadelphia area. The Greensgrow Philadelphia Project’s farm and The Schuylkill River Park Community Garden are just two examples of urban agriculture where poor people can exercise agency by directly participating in food production.

James notes that she had a personal connection to the research. “As a graduate student I have lived in a low-income household, working multiple low-wage jobs, with an income supplemented by a male partner earning a similarly low wage. After I finished my financial eligibility in graduate school, I received no additional financial support from outside sources. In 2012, my household received SNAP benefits for a period of about 14 months. During this time, I used our benefits to purchase basic items such as rice, flour, spices, yeast, dairy products, oils, meat, and eggs.

“But, today we no longer need these benefits because my partner recently accepted a position at a farm located in a metropolitan county on the east coast. As a farm worker, my partner produces for the farm owner, and we are also able to use the land to produce some items for ourselves, such vegetables, eggs, chicken, and milk. We also heat the house with firewood available on the farm. While my story may not be generalizable, I believe it provides a useful starting point for thinking about some of the methods through which urban farms may help low-income people improve their livelihoods and reduce their need for government assistance.”