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Story by Mike Kaneb

Across the United States and around the globe, more and more cities are growing and producing food closer to home. From large-scale edible landscape designs like Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest, to bustling urban farms like Eastie Farm in Boston, urban agriculture projects are getting more attention, and the trend is spreading. But the benefits of edible landscapes go beyond getting more local food in our markets and households. From a social and ecological perspective, urban agriculture can also help grow healthier cities, safer neighborhoods and stronger communities.

Guide from Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest website. Cover image is also from Seattle.

Historically, cities have focused on industry, trades, and services, while relying on rural farms in the surrounding countryside for their food production. In recent decades, this disparity has increased, as local food systems suffered with the government subsidization of corporate industrial farming practices. As farms got bigger and more mechanized in the 1940s and 50s, small farms and gardens in towns, cities and suburbs became less appreciated, and less profitable. Many smaller food operations were forced to close from intense market competition by big consolidated farm businesses.

But with more awareness being paid to healthy, natural foods and the importance of local food systems to regional security and resilient economies, farming and gardening are moving back into neighborhoods and communities where it’s been missing for generations.

In Waterbury, the nonprofit food hub Brass City Harvest has brought raised bed gardening, greenhouses, aquaponics, and food processing facilities with community access to the South End, where affordable, healthy food is hard to find. State funding has helped to advance their work to address food insecurity in Waterbury, and their work has been noticed by people across the region.

State Senator Joan Hartley has been a driving force in securing funding for Brass City Harvest, which now operates a food hub in the South End of Waterbury.

Waterbury youth learning about gardening at Bras City Harvest’s Mill Street location in the South End of Waterbury.

Waterbury youth in action at the North Farm Community Garden in the North End.

A tree planting last Autumn in the Love & Care Community Garden in the Crownbrook neighborhood of Waterbury signaled the launch of an Urban Forestry Program led by Neighborhood Housing Services of Waterbury. The mission is to reforest sections of the city, and perhaps part of the mission might become planting nut and fruit trees.

20 miles north, New Opportunities of Torrington opened a large-scale greenhouse complex on Technology Park Drive this past summer, focusing on local hydroponically-grown greens, with plans to eventually expand their operation. Nearby, indoor microgreens farm Casi Paraiso Organics has brought dozens of new varieties of greens to local customers at farmers markets as well as selling directly to stores and restaurants.

Cities like Waterbury and Torrington have a lot of land, and an attentive eye can see where edible species fit in. The next step is to get approval and get the plants in the soil. Last month, the Northwest Conservation District applied for funding from the NACD Urban Agriculture Conservation Grant Initiative to install plantings of hardy edible perennial species like trees and shrubs in Torrington to improve food security for city residents. The initiative has also received support from the Torrington Conservation Commission, which had already been exploring the idea of urban agriculture “food forests.”

The quantity of healthy food grown in urban spaces isn’t the only measure of success we should look to for urban agriculture projects. To reclaim control of our diet and our overall health, physically and mentally, we need to rekindle our most special relationships, with one another, and with the world around us, including all living beings. We are capable of greening our hardscape cities and coexisting with other species in ways that are mutually strengthening.

The motto of the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle is, “public food on public land.” The project began as a dream in 2009 when four friends studying food forestry created a design that would transform seven acres of unused city land into a diverse ecosystem that would provide fresh, healthy, local food to neighbors.

It didn’t happen overnight. It took many meeting with city officials, professional landscape architects and public hearings, but the group was able to successfully move the project forward and it has drawn international attention.

The Brass City Harvest food hub in the South End of Waterbury has an opportunity to use the land along the Mad River to build upon their success, follow Seattle’s vision, and create a food forest in Waterbury. This land might be used to construct greenhouses to grow vegetables to feed public school kids, and to sell to the neighborhood, and if that happens there will still be opportunities for Waterbury to explore urban food forests on public lands in the city.

A key to the success of the food forest in Seattle is passionate volunteers. Can and will Waterbury residents step up and get involved?

For people living in Connecticut’s cities, where poverty is more prevalent, urban agriculture projects can provide visions of a more healthy, green, just and equitable future. Time spent connecting with the Earth and the species that feed us and give us life is invaluable. People of all ages, especially children, should be immersed in social environments where food species and nature can be experienced directly. These powerful relationships fuel our might and right for healthier societies, where access to land, food, water, and natural resources is shared equitably among our human family.

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