WXXI Local Stories
Thu May 6, 2010
Gardeners and Food Bank Planting Seeds for Urban Farming
By Rachel Ward
Rochester, NY – At first glance, the farm does not look promising. It's overgrown with tall grasses and weeds. There's a high brick wall surrounding it, which casts deep shadows over the cluster of apple trees. And there are kids running around everywhere.
But there's also a warm, sunny greenhouse full of long tables of seedlings - a sign that some serious farming is going on here, according to coordinator Jan McDonald. She says the tiny farmers here at Franklin Montessori are growing 90 different varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers in the courtyard of their school.
The students are part of Rochester Roots. They tend the plants and then take the harvest home, or sell it. But the program isn't just about farming - it's also about sustainability and nutrition. And soon, Rochester Roots will join forces with the area's biggest food bank, Foodlink, to teach legions of people how to grow their own food, right inside the city of Rochester.
"Bigger than just agriculture"
Tom Ferraro is the founder and president of Foodlink, something of a local food bank empire.
"We really see this as part and parcel of how we correct some of the ills that are making that people are hungry. There's just a lack of wealth and a lack of jobs."
So Foodlink has stepped up its efforts, to make itself more sustainable, in the hopes of transferring that knowledge to the community. It has a farm where it grows produce to give away, and to sell. It's cutting its delivery costs by brewing waste food into ethanol. And the food bank is hoping that soon it will be able to sell the leftover gunk from ethanol production to gardeners, as nutrient-rich soil, according to Ferraro.
"This is much bigger than just urban agriculture, I think as we begin to as a society be able to turn our waste stream into energy and do a variety of other things, the world as we know it is going to change rather quickly and dramatically."
Here's an extremely optimistic example of how this could work: people in the city need food and jobs. So Rochester Roots trains them to farm vacant lots. They can eat some produce, sell the rest. Pretty soon they've built up enough wealth in the neighborhood that urban blight disappears.
But farming advocates know the funds for this sort of project aren't going to magically appear.
Crunching the numbers
To help make the case to potential funders, urban agriculture supports have turned to a firm called Sustainable Intelligence, to crunch the numbers for this project. The goal is to find out if urban farming can fulfill all of the promises about job creation and nutrition and economic development that its boosters have made. Sustainable Intelligence chief operating officer, Steven Tylock, calls this tool "the super index."
Tylock says it works by assigning the current state of things a number, like 100. That's the baseline. The baseline might look like this: the neighborhood has no gardens, no one has a car, and there's no decent food at the convenience store.
But if you apply a change, like knocking over some blighted buildings and giving the land to people to farm, and then feed it into the index, you can measure whether or not the change is a good thing, or a bad thing, according to Tylock.
"Generally going up is a good thing. So if we can say it goes up X amount, that's a great thing and you can also say, ooh if it goes down, maybe you don't want to do that sort of a thing."
Sustainable Intelligence tries to measure abstract things, like "how does this garden plot increase community," and practical things like, "does one type of corn seed create more jobs than another." Tylock says no one's really tried to measure these factors all at once before.
"When you say we need $100,000 to do something, [the index gives us] more proof than 'it's good for us'. Because 'it's good for us' hasn't been getting the funding."
Funding is the crux of this whole thing. The project is a huge undertaking. Organizers want to train lots of people to do large-scale farming, but within the confines of the city. So that might mean building machines to do aeroponics in abandoned warehouses, or putting hydroponics on rooftops. That's going to require "big money," as Foodlink's Tom Ferraro puts it - and he says it's not likely to come from cash-strapped Albany.
"Why do you rob banks? That's where the money is. We went to Washington because even though there's not a whole lot more money there, there's some money there, and it doesn't appear that Albany is in a position at this point in time to do much of this."
Ferraro says Foodlink is pitching these ideas to the local congressional delegation, looking for federal earmarks to fund them. And those dollars would help the community build sustainable systems, to get past the cycle of boom and bust. If it solves urban blight, or cuts down on obesity, or creates more jobs along the way, that's icing on the cake. Or perhaps, the carrot.