Innovative Land Use Policy Empowers Citizens to Improve Health

Earlier this year, the Sacramento City Council passed two urban farm ordinances that allow city residents to grow and sell food directly from their properties, and receive tax incentives for doing so—a decision that set a momentous precedent for legitimizing and encouraging urban agriculture as a land use in cities. While this policy change is largely a local version of California’s 2014 Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act (AB551), it was also driven by Sacramento’s pressing need to reduce urban blight and improve access to healthy food for those lacking. These ordinances reveal a growing understanding of the capacity for urban agriculture to mitigate health issues and engender wider community development in our neighborhoods.

Prior to the passing of the ordinances, urban agriculture had already become a growing phenomenon in Sacramento. Prompted by a motivation to find healthy food for himself and his family, local resident Chanowk Yisrael became somewhat of a poster child for the movement when he converted his empty yard into a farm. Chanowk notes that 45 percent of his family’s diet now comes from the farm, and when crops are in season, they are able to slash their grocery bill in half. He is also able to sell his produce and offer an inviting green space to his community, in a neighborhood that is often stigmatized as dangerous.

Chanowk’s neighborhood is classified as a food desert, which for urban communities means that residents lack access to fresh, healthy, and affordable foods within a one-mile radius. Just prior to the passing of the agriculture ordinances, food insecurity was experienced by more than 240,000 people in the greater Sacramento region (roughly 18 percent of the population). With the adoption of the new ordinances, Sacramento follows the lead of several other cities across the country (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Detroit) that have looked to inner-city agriculture to create sources of healthy food within easy proximity to local residents—thereby eliminating the common burdens of cost and transportation. Similarly to the Yisraels, Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods found that some families were able to cover up to 60 percent of their family’s produce needs through the city’s gardening programs. With the ease of having increased access to healthy food, residents also have more opportunities to improve their diets. Studies have shown that community gardeners eat significantly more fruits and vegetables than both home gardeners and nongardeners and 56 percent of community gardeners met national recommendations to consume fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day, compared with 37 percent of home gardeners and 25 percent of nongardeners.

Urban agriculture can catalyze wider community benefits such as encouraging local economic development and civic engagement. Particularly for low-income, often immigrant, communities, who often speak little English, the new agriculture ordinances present opportunities for people to earn their own incomes and interact with their neighbors. According to Chanowk, gardening and commerce aggregates interest in those places, enough that a passersby will stop and talk, or even offer to help with farm work. “It’s more than just putting the soil in the dirt,” he says. “…you’re talking about growing community, and getting people interested in what’s going on in the community again and wanting to do something about it.” Urban agriculture becomes a new platform for public life, where individuals can socialize with their neighbors and start to see themselves as part of a collective civic identity.

Support and mobilization of urban farming by the government has deep roots in American history. During the World War era, the federal government touted the development of gardens as an urbanite’s duty,leading to nearly 20 million Americans accounting for 44% of the fresh vegetables produced in the U.S. at the time. Although federal support quickly dissipated after the war, innovative cities throughout the country have found ways to encourage urban agriculture by weaving it into land use regulations. For example, Seattle’s 2005 comprehensive plan required that there was at least one community garden for every 2500 households in a neighborhood. Some city programs work to specifically address barriers to urban agriculture, by increasing access to land, soil, water, and funding for development. Chicago’s Neighborspace initiative sustains, manages, and covers liability insurance for community gardens on behalf of a community group. Sacramento’s ordinances fall into a third category by reviewing and revising zoning ordinances related to urban agriculture. The new ordinances protect urban gardens and farms from being closed down as “illegal” and from being displaced by encroaching development. In all three scenarios, these cities have supported and encouraged interest in urban agriculture, recognizing it as a citizen-driven method of improving community health, revitalizing neighborhoods, and spurring economic development.

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    Local resident gardener, Chanowk Yisrael, on the September cover of Sacramento News Review. Photo: Sacramento News Review.
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    Residents discuss and interact at this family's produce stand. Photo: Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio.
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    The Yisrael family converted their vacant, overgrown lot into a flourishing, vibrant farm. Photo: Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio.
  • Poor diet is a leading risk factor for childhood obesity, along with lack of physical activity and prolonged screen times.

  • Lack of access to nutritious fresh foods in neighborhoods underserved by grocery stores, is linked to higher rates of chronic diseases.