by Mauricio Espinoza

Ohio State scientist Parwinder Grewal said his study could be applied to other North American cities to assess their potential food self-reliance.
* Increased urban food production would add $29-$115 million to Cleveland’s economy annually.

WOOSTER, Ohio — Cleveland and other post-industrial North American cities have the potential to generate up to 100 percent of their current needs for fresh produce and other food items — retaining millions of dollars in the local economy, creating new jobs, and spurring additional health, social and environmental benefits.

Those are some of the findings of a study conducted by Parwinder Grewal, professor of entomology and director of the Center for Urban Environment and Economic Development at Ohio State University, based in Wooster. The study, “Can cities become self-reliant in food?” was published online on July 20 by the journal Cities.

“Urban agriculture is becoming very popular in the United States and other countries as well, whether in the form of home gardens, community gardens, aquaculture or urban farms,” said Grewal, who holds appointments with both the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) and OSU Extension. “The first thing people say when I talk about urban agriculture is, ‘How much food can cities really produce?’ ‘There is not that much land within the cities, and we need lots of land to produce food.’ That was my basic motivation for this study.”

To find out how much of its own food Clevelanders could grow within the city limits, Grewal worked with the Cleveland City Planning Commission to obtain data on vacant land as well as the total rooftop surface area of industrial and commercial buildings — where greenhouses or hydroponic systems could be installed. He also looked for published data on the productivity of various fruits and vegetables within an urban setting.

Cleveland, it turns out, currently has more than 3,000 acres of vacant lots resulting from years of manufacturing job losses, the recent economic downturn and a high rate of home foreclosures. Add to that some 2,900 acres of flat rooftops, and the possibilities for intensive urban agriculture become clear, Grewal said.

“Cleveland is very progressive in urban agriculture, with more than 200 community gardens (about 50 acres) in existence and legislation that allows for beekeeping and the production of small livestock within the city,” Grewal explained. “While not trivial, current local food production only accounts for 1.7 percent ($1.5 million) of the $89 million Cleveland spends annually on fresh produce, and 0.1 percent of the city’s total food and beverage expenditures. However, the potential for food self-reliance is significantly higher considering available space in the city.”

To translate that potential into numbers, Grewal came up with three “self-reliance” scenarios, each varying in amount of space dedicated to food production and food items grown.

The first scenario utilizes 80 percent of every vacant lot for growing produce and raising chickens, with beehives being kept on 15 percent of those unoccupied lots. This arrangement, the study found, can meet between 22 and 48 percent of Cleveland’s fresh produce demand, 25 percent of its poultry and shell egg needs, and 100 percent of the honey consumed in this city of almost 400,000 residents.

In the second scenario, 9 percent of every occupied residential lot would be turned to fruit, vegetable and chicken production in the form of small gardens and coops, in addition to the vacant-land use outlined in the first scenario. This would increase Cleveland’s food self-reliance to 31-68 percent in fresh produce, 94 percent in poultry and shell eggs, and 100 percent in honey.

The final scenario includes the land use and food production of the first two, but adds industrial and commercial building rooftops to the mix. Under such an arrangement, Cleveland would meet between 46 and 100 percent of its fresh produce needs, 94 percent of poultry and shell eggs, and 100 percent of honey.

“Cleveland annually spends some $115 million in fresh fruits and vegetables, poultry, eggs, and honey, most of which comes from somewhere else — California, Mexico, South America, even as far away as China and Thailand,” Grewal said. “Our study indicates that the city can prevent economic leakage anywhere from $27 million to $115 million annually by increasing its production of fresh produce, poultry and honey. This could boost the city’s economy and lead to increased job creation.”

Local food production, Grewal said, has many other benefits. Several studies (including some by Ohio State researchers), have found that urban agriculture can help boost access to and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables; cut obesity rates due to consumption of healthy food and increased physical activity; promote a sense of community and decrease crime activity; and raise property values as vacant lots are put to attractive and productive use.

Urban farming can also reduce human impact on the environment. Grewal said food in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to the consumer’s plate, requiring large amounts of fuel and energy for transportation and refrigeration. Additionally, increasing green space in the city through farms and gardens can boost carbon storage in the soil, reduce problems associated with stormwater runoff, and curtail the urban heat island effect.

“Just like the organic food movement, where it was about five to six years ago, the local food movement is gaining a similar type of momentum right now, and every city has the potential to at least increase its local self-sufficiency and resilience by producing its own food,” Grewal pointed out. “This is something we must move forward to, and the city of Cleveland is positively moving in that direction.”

Sharanbir Grewal, a junior at Georgetown University and a participant in OARDC’s Research Internship Program (ORIP), co-authored the study.

OARDC and OSU Extension are the research and outreach arms, respectively, of Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

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