• Health is affected by numerous social and physical factors in an individual’s community, not just genetics and access to health care. Access to fresh food, perceptions of safety and well-being, aesthetic and artistic factors, and trust and social support between community members all affect health outcomes.
  • Urban agriculture can put vacated land to creative use and may improve local economies and environments, but urban farms can also be a nexus of health improvement and social/cultural empowerment.
  • Policies related to urban agriculture should consider potential public health impacts and recognize that urban farms may be a valuable mechanism to transform the Dickensian settings and conditions that ultimately lead to poor health.

It wasn’t yet the best of times in Detroit, but there was a hesitant optimism that it was no longer the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom (for think tanks), it was the age of foolishness (for elected officials); it was the epoch of belief (in fake news), it was the epoch of incredulity (in national politics). This was the setting into which the Citizens Research Council of Michigan invited our colleagues from around the country to visit Detroit for the 104th conference of the Governmental Research Association (GRA), an annual assemblage of policy wonks intent on bringing facts and reason to state and local policymaking.

Our annual conference discussed a range of issues, from Detroit’s largest-in-history municipal bankruptcy to the ongoing national problem of lead exposure (and the international attention paid to Flint on the issue). We looked to the future and discussed autonomous vehicle technology, and we looked to the past and discussed retiree benefits that saddle governments with legacy costs. We heard a captivating discussion between renowned author and policy consultant David Osborne and his daughter Molly, herself a policy expert. Amid these varied policy discussions, we visited two of Detroit’s growing urban farms: Recovery Park Farms and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.

Recovery Park is located in Poletown, in southeast Detroit. Once a vibrant commercial corridor, Chene Street and its surrounding neighborhoods are now one of the most depopulated and devastated in the city. The farm focuses on commercial production of fresh, high-end specialty produce for Detroit’s emergent culinary scene, including edible flowers, herbs, specialty greens, tomatoes, and root vegetables. The farm produces year-round and has grown and sold over 50 varieties of vegetables (over 10,000 pounds of produce) to 150 local restaurants in 2018.

While Recovery Park Farms exists as a for-profit business, it is an arm of the Recovery Park 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to create jobs for people with barriers to employment (such as criminal history). Recovery Park works to leverage underutilized assets in Detroit (including available workforce, open space, and existing infrastructure and partnering companies) to aid in Detroit’s revitalization and to “help returning citizens and challenged workers return to the workforce.”

Oakland Avenue Urban Farm represents a different model of urban farming, as a program of the North End Christian Community Development Corporation. At its outset, the farm focused on growing foods that were familiar and appealing to the North End neighborhood, including beans, greens, and tomatoes. The farm also plants flowers to create a vibrant, attractive outdoor space within the neighborhood. In addition to growing food, the farm hosts weekly markets and teaches community cooking classes.

Jerry Hebron, the farm’s co-founder, recognizes that agriculture is only part of a broader understanding of culture, and began the process of transforming the farm into a five-acre landscape that combines art, architecture, and sustainable ecologies. By bringing together healthy food, economic and environmental sustainability, and a vibrant cultural environment, the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm has grown from cultivating vegetables to cultivating a meaningful sense of community.

In our latest report An Ounce of Prevention: What Public Health Means for Michigan, the Citizens Research Council discusses how health is affected by factors in communities (not just hospitals or physicians’ offices). Notably, we find that the majority of a person’s health is determined by interwoven social, environmental, and behavioral factors, and that these social (and physical) determinants of health are probably best addressed through public policy.

We also highlight the value of a “Health in All Policies” framework for policymaking that suggests policymakers should work together to consider the public-health impact of various policies. This means not only considering how policies might harm health in a community, but also how they might improve a community’s health or buffer it from factors that contribute to poor health.

On the surface, the two urban farms that we visited during the GRA conference certainly raise interesting land use questions. Just a little digging into these farms, their community roots, and their blossoming impact, however, reveals fertile ground in which to consider various policy areas; this digging quickly yields the fruitful realization that urban agriculture has many implications for public health. Beyond sowing the seeds of zoning issues, it would seem urban farms may enable communities to reap many health-relevant benefits like food security, promotion of physical activity, nutritional education, economic development, environmental stewardship, and individual and community psychological/social well-being.

Recovery Park’s associate support platform works with the company’s employees to address any potential barriers to their employment, ensuring they have access to healthcare, adequate housing, transportation, rehabilitation support, educational services, and social support (in addition to other wraparound services). These potential obstacles to employment are also social determinants of health (as is, for that matter, gainful employment); the success of this model reinforces the fact that workforce development is predicated upon policies and programs that address health issues and related social factors.

The Oakland Avenue Urban Farm provides access to fresh, healthy food as well as knowledge and skills to cook healthy meals. The related health benefits of improved nutrition seem obvious, considering Detroit’s high rates of mortality due to heart disease and diabetes that exceed state and national rates. The presence of the farm is all the more valuable given neighborhood disparities in access to healthy food and the known tendency of low-income, minority neighborhoods to have comparatively fewer fruit and vegetable markets and more liquor stores.

The community health benefits of the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm are not limited to nutrition. By creating a safe, aesthetically beautiful space, the farm grows a sense of community well-being; once perceived as an unsafe area, neighbors are now sometimes observed napping at the farm’s tranquil setting. Building trust and social connection enhances the ability of community members to cope with social adversity, bolstering social support systems within the community. Research has shown that social isolation is a major health risk factor, and that people with social support achieve better health outcomes. The farm’s community-building activities may also foster greater community resilience and form a buffer between individuals and factors that might otherwise harm health. The creative arts also provide known health benefits , including stress reduction and improved psychosocial health.

Recovery Park is also a model of how green infrastructure can reduce the discharge of untreated stormwater into the sewer system while creating aesthetic improvements to vacant properties. This model of urban agriculture creates the potential for better environmental health. Oakland Avenue Urban Farm works towards environmentally sustainable practices, as well as addressing issues of environmental justice. Given that around a quarter of global deaths are attributable to people living and working in unhealthy environments, the health benefits of a clean environment are manifest.

These two urban farms are examples of how health improvement can happen in places we might not traditionally expect. They demonstrate ways to develop policies that simultaneously address physical, social, and economic needs. It appears that urban agriculture is a valuable mechanism to transform the Dickensian settings and conditions that ultimately lead to poor health.

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