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Feeding the Cities – Case studies from Australia, Brazil, USA and Canada exploring the role of urban agriculture and rural family farms in community food security

Peta Christensen and Ben Neil

Cultivating Community, PO Box 8, Abbotsford, Victoria 3067,


In both developed and developing countries, cities are dealing with issues of community food insecurity - of people not having enough appropriate food to eat. And all over the world we are realising that people are hungry not because there is not enough food being produced, but because our current food systems are uncertain and unjust. In addition to issues of hunger, in most developed countries like Australia we have a relatively new phenomenon whereby we find food insecure people suffer from complications such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease due to the kinds of foods that are being accessed. Urban agriculture plays an important role in addressing these issues. Community gardens are in great demand and springing up all over the inner city wherever land is available for interested community groups.. Grass roots organisations and local governments are combining community development with projects involving growing food and making accessible affordable fresh food to develop more sustainable long term ways of readjusting the balance.

Powerful connections are also being made between small local farmers and disadvantaged urban communities. Through direct partnerships, urban communities can support small local farm enterprises and in turn these city folk can learn more about where their food comes from, and increase their access to fresh, seasonal produce. This paper will explore case studies of innovative food projects and organisations from Australia, USA, Brazil and Canada. The overseas projects outlined were visited as part of a 2004 Churchill Fellowship travel grant.

Three key learnings: (1) Strategies for community development in community gardens; (2) Strategies for urban gardening projects to significantly contribute to addressing issues of food security; (3) Strategies for connecting small local farms with low income urban communities in order to increase access to fresh food for food-insecure urban dwellers and to increase and secure markets for small local farms

Key words

Community gardens, food security, city-urban links, fresh produce


Re-earthing our cities

“Seed by Seed, plant by plant, peasant by peasant, community by community, country by country, we will reclaim our food freedom.” Vandana Shiva (2004).

Some definitions

Community Food Security is "a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice" (Hamm, 2001). Community food security, in other words, recognizes the need to use a host of community-based institutions and sectors - from agriculture to community development to public health to government assistance - to achieve true food security for all households in a given area or region” (Winne 2003).

Urban agriculture - According to Wikipedia, is “the practice of agriculture (include crops, livestock, fisheries, forestry activities) within or surrounding the boundaries of cities. The land may be private residential (including balconies, walls or roofs), public roadside land or river banks. Urban farming is practiced for income-earning or food-producing activities. It contributes to food security and food safety in two ways: first it increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and second it allows fresh vegetables and fruits to be made available to urban consumers. Because it promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban agriculture are sustainability practices.” (Wikipedia 2006))

In both developed and developing countries, cities are dealing with issues of community food insecurity. And all over the world we are realising that people are hungry not because there is not enough food being produced, but because our current food systems are uncertain and unjust. In addition to issues of hunger, in most developed countries like Australia we have a relatively new phenomenon whereby we find food insecure people suffer from complications such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease due to the kinds of foods that are being accessed. These symptoms are especially common in low income communities where often access to fresh food is limited yet there is an abundance of convenience foods that are high in sugars and fats. According to the Australian 1995 National Nutrition Survey, 5% of adults questioned had in the last twelve months run out of food and could not afford to buy more. “A gradient was observed in the results - from 8.9% in the most disadvantaged areas (first quintile of SEIFA) to about 3% in the least disadvantaged areas (Wood et al, 2000). When specific groups were identified, the proportion of people exhibiting food insecurity increased with vulnerability (16.5% for adults on low income, aged 16-24 years).” (Burns, Swinburn, Wood 2003)

Urban agriculture plays an important role in addressing these issues. Community gardens are in great demand and springing up all over the inner city wherever land is available. Grass roots organisations and local governments are combining community development with projects involving growing food and providing outlets to increase access to affordable fresh food to develop more sustainable long term ways of readjusting the balance.

There are also powerful connections being made between small local farmers and disadvantaged urban communities. Through direct partnerships, urban communities can support small local farm enterprises and in turn these city folk can learn more about where there food comes from and increase their access to fresh, seasonal produce. Looking to places like the USA, Canada and Brazil we see exciting projects not only looking to feed people in the short term, but to truly create a “sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice” (Winne 2003).

Case Studies of Urban Agriculture and Food Security Projects

The following case studies reflect some of the work being done in this area locally and also overseas.

Melbourne Australia

Cultivating Community

Access to such a basic resource as soil is limited in the densely populated inner-city; hence community gardens are extremely popular with long waiting lists commonplace. ‘Cultivating Community’ is a not-for-profit organisation that has grown out of supporting the community garden projects in inner-city public housing estates. Consisting of a management committee, paid workers and volunteers, it has evolved into an organisation to promote and support the development of community gardens and other urban agriculture projects. In the past 6 years, Cultivating Community has grown from a volunteer interest group, into a fully funded agency with the majority of funding coming from state government.

Cultivating Community support a thriving network of community gardens in Public Housing Estates and other community areas throughout Victoria, through a practical and transferable model of set-up, training, follow-through and evaluation that ensures the long-term sustainability of the gardens. They focus on community building through gardening and environmental projects in order to work more closely with a wide range of people to enrich their quality of life. Their work is based around encouraging the development of sustainable agricultural practices in urban areas to enhance food security and to promote the cultural richness of food, plants and people through community gardens.

Cultivating Community is responsible for the management of 17 community gardens on public housing estates across Melbourne. The gardens function around principles and practices of environmentally sustainable horticulture and waste management. Cultivating Community is committed to grass roots community development and is working alongside public housing residents/plot holders to achieve long term goals of tenant empowerment and self management for the community garden projects. Figure 1 Tilling the soil at the Alfred St Garden, North Melbourne.

Figure 1. Tilling the soil at the Alfred St Garden, North Melbourne

Community Markets

In Melbourne community gardens have been very successful projects in public housing communities, but only a small percentage of tenants can actually have a plot. Issues of food insecurity and obesity continue to spiral especially in disadvantaged communities and when Cultivating Community looked around many of the public housing areas in Melbourne’s inner city they found that supermarkets were often few and far between. The Fitzroy estate, located at the top of Brunswick Street is surrounded by high end cafs and restaurants however there is not one affordable grocer or even supermarket.

In order to increase access to fresh food for more public housing tenants Cultivating Community began to explore models of food cooperatives and markets. In 2004, together with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, they began consulting with tenants from the Fitzroy estate and later in the year established a fresh food market that aimed to bring fresh and affordable food right to the doorstep of the estate. Currently fresh food is mostly bought from the Footscray Wholesale Market and sold on the estate through a not-for-profit, tenant volunteer run initiative. Hopefully similar style projects can develop on many of the other inner city public housing estates creating significant buying power which can be then channelled directly to local family farmers, serving the dual purpose of supporting small farms and bringing affordable fresh food to low income communities. These relationships between farmers and city dwellers not only help to develop a more economic sustainable food system, but through education about where our food comes from, how our food is grown and when our food is grown we start to build real and powerful relationships with our food that helps us to appreciate its value and importance. An example of a community market is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Atherton Gardens fruit and vegetable market, Fitzroy, Melbourne


In Brazil all levels of government are active in making sure people are fed and that local farmers are supported. The philosophy is that having adequate food is a right of citizenship. In contrast to the fearful pronouncements we hear all to often from our own politicians President Lula’s inaugural address in 2002 was about Food Security not Homeland Security

Staement by Brazillian President Lula 2002

……“In a country that has so much fertile land and so many people willing to work, there ought to be no cause to speak of hunger. Nonetheless, millions of Brazilians, in the countryside and in the cities, in underprivileged rural areas and on the outskirts of the cities, at this very moment, have nothing to eat.

This can not continue. So long as one of our Brazilian brothers or sisters is hungry, we can only be overwhelmed by shame.

It is for this reason that I have placed, among the priorities of my Government, a food security program to be known as Zero Hunger ('Fome Zero'). As I said in my first speech after the election, if, when I conclude my term of office, all Brazilians can have breakfast, lunch and supper, I will have fulfilled my mission in life.

This is a cause that can and should be embraced by all, regardless of social-class, political-party or ideological distinctions. In face of the cries of those oppressed by the bane of hunger, the ethical imperative of joining forces, skills and instruments to defend that which is most sacred must prevail: the dignity of human beings.

That country people may have their dignity restored to them, in the knowledge that, upon rising with the sun, with each stroke of their hoes or of their tractors, they are contributing to the well being of all Brazilians, both in the countryside and in the cities.”

(Embassy of Brazil 2002)

Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is Brazil’s fourth largest city, located North East of Rio, high up on a savannah like plateau with eucalypt clad hills in an old gold mining region called Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte began seriously tackling issues of food security long before President Lula came to power. In 1993 the city, where one fifth of the city’s children were malnourished, became the only city in the capitalist world to declare food a right of citizenship. Much of the new innovations were aimed at moving away from the traditional charitable hand out model and moving towards more long term, sustainable solutions.

Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) is Lula’s $US6 billion per year program run by a Ministry that works across health, agriculture and social security ministries in partnership with local food security councils (CONSEA’s) to create long term solutions to food access problems. If you are living below the poverty line you get a Food Card which can be used to buy food at a subsidised ‘one bag’ fruit and vegetable store run by the Belo Horizonte City Council where the price for most of the produce was 59 centivos per kg (A30 cents a kg). With one price per kg all the great quality, local in-season produce goes into ‘one bag’ to be weighed. The produce is often surplus crops sourced from farmers who would otherwise plough them if they were not able to secure a break even price on the open market. Out the back of the market we talked to one of the guys unloading the 10 pallets of produce off the truck and he told us that they had two truckloads like that everyday, which didn’t include the tables of greens the local farmer was selling from a stand out front of the shop. Figure 3 shows a “One Bag” market. ………

Figure 3. A one bag market in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Toronto, Canada

When interviewing Dr Cecilia Rocha from the Centre for Food Security at Toronto’s Ryerson University, she expressed that in her mind the two most exciting cities in the world in terms of Food Security work are Belo Horizonte in Brazil and Toronto, Canada.

Toronto Food Policy Council

According to the City of Toronto website, “Toronto has long been at the forefront of public health initiatives and food security research. Toronto was one of the originators of, and among the first world cities to sign onto, the United Nations' Healthy Cities movement. In 1991, in the absence of federal and provincial leadership on food security, the City created the Toronto Food Policy Council.” (Roberts 2005)

Toronto Food Policy Council Mission

The Toronto Food Policy Council partners with business and community groups to develop policies and programs promoting food security. Our aim is a food system that fosters equitable food access, nutrition, community development and environmental health. Roberts (2005)

The Food Charter encourages city planners to build in food to their designs for new and redeveloped communities - this can range from provision of land for community gardens to situating food stores within walking distance of residences. The city is a large purchaser of food, whether it be snacks at a meeting or supplying a school lunch program. The Charter promotes local, healthy, organic when possible, food for all occasions with the idea that government can have a positive influence on the health of local food systems.


Instigated by the then Mayor of Toronto and others concerned about the growing need for and reliance on emergency food relief services FoodShare was born in 1985 and has grown into one of the largest and most successful food security organisations in North America. Originally FoodShare was established to co-ordinate emergency food services. A few year’s later the staff at FoodShare, increasingly frustrated by growing levels of community food insecurity, began to develop long term and sustainable approaches to hunger issues. Implementing projects such as co-operative buying systems, community kitchens and urban agriculture sites FoodShare began to address the everyday issues of household food security aiming to build stronger and more resilient communities from the ground up.

FoodShare’s catchcry is “from field to table” meaning that they work with every element of the food system from the growing, harvesting, processing, distribution, purchasing, cooking, consumption and finally composting. They see one of the main problems with our current food system is the treatment of food as a commodity. Like Belo Horizonte, FoodShare aim to make access to food a basic human right. They believe that this must be done through a range of not-for-profit food distribution and education mechanisms such as the Good Food Box, the Good Food at Home program, Sunshine Urban Agriculture Program, The Toronto Community Gardening Network, Farm Fresh Markets, Focus on Food Youth Project, Student Nutrition, Field to Table Catering Service, Toronto Kitchen Incubator, Healthy Babies Eat Home cooked Food and the Foodlink Hotline.

The Good Food Box

The Good Food Box is the flagship program of FoodShare and aims to get affordable fruit and vegetables to as many people in Toronto as possible. The program is a weekly cooperative buying scheme where participants purchase a pre-packed box of seasonal produce. Customers can choose the size of the box (large or small) and between conventional or organic produce. The first boxes were packed in 1994 in the FoodShare office basement and the project has since grown from 40 boxes per month to 3,000. The boxes are now packed at a fully equipped warehouse located at FoodShare’s Field to Table Centre and distributed through 200 neighbourhood based drop-off points. These drop-off points are churches, day-care centres, apartment buildings, community centres – anywhere where there are at least 8 to 10 customers.

Two recent developments of the Good Food Box program are a Wellness Box for women in active treatment for breast cancer. The box includes 25 – 35 servings of fruits, vegetables and other prepared foods. The program also offers other nutritional advice as well as post-treatment cooking classes and ongoing community dinners with other women who have experienced breast cancer. The other development is The AfriCan Food Basket; inspired by the Good Food Box it is a similar scheme that operates using the FoodShare warehouse gathering foods sort after by local African communities.

Each week FoodShare volunteers, paid in-kind with a food box at the end of the day, gather to sort organic and conventional produce sourced from the wholesale market and direct from local farmers (some food comes from Mennonite farmers who farm with no power or machinery and do business from a fax at the local gas station). FoodShare sources Ontario grown produce wherever possible ensuring a good understanding of where the food came from and under what conditions it was grown. Purchasing local food also supports local farmers and means less fossil fuels are burnt in transportation. Each week, Zahra Parvinian, the Good Food Box Team Manager takes the time to offer the volunteer packers samples of the fruits and vegetables, explaining item by item where produce came from and any current growing and harvesting information farmers have passed on.

The Good Food boxes include a newsletter, recipes, food storage and preparation tip sheets. Volunteer co-ordinators collect money from participants in advance and then ensure that the customers receive their boxes once delivered. Participants get a great deal paying for only the cost of the food itself as all other distribution overheads are subsidized – this means that a $17 family box has a retail value of somewhere between $23 and $30. The Good Food Box (see Figure 4) makes quality, fresh and affordable produce readily available across the community in a way that does not stigmatize people fostering community involvement and community development while encouraging healthy eating.

Figure 4. Packing the Good Food Box, Toronto Canada

Community Gardening

FoodShare are the supporting organisation for the Toronto Community Gardening Network which features some 110 gardens and whose aim is to keep gardens and gardeners connected. These gardens offer a place for people to grow food for their families, beautify their neighbourhoods and to be in touch with the cycles and rhythms of nature which can be difficult in an urban environment. As part of this program, the network organises special events such as seed exchanges, garden tours, dinners, talks and festivals. They also offer a 10 week course on how to start and sustain community garden projects and consult directly with communities on enhancing their gardens.

Urban Agriculture

FoodShare’s main urban agriculture site is the Sunshine Garden located at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. This 7000 sq ft market garden is the only certified organic market garden in Toronto. From June to October volunteers and participants from the centre grow produce which is sold twice a week through the project’s farm stand. The farm stand, located on a bustling street achieves two objectives – the first is to increase access for the community to fresh, local and affordable food - the second to encourage people to come onto a site that they would ordinarily pass by and may even feel intimidated by. Complimenting the urban agriculture program FoodShare also has an impressive composting operation, a propagation facility and beehives at the Field to Table Centre.

FoodShare believes that food distribution systems that provide opportunities to gain some control over this very fundamental part of our lives have great potential to empower individuals and communities. Food lies at the heart of our bodies’ health, our cultural connection, our social cohesion and our connection to land – all of FoodShare’s programs are guided by these community building principles.

Making Connections

The North York Harvest Food Bank runs the second largest food bank in Toronto. It works like most food banks, relying on donations of predominantly canned and boxed non perishable food items making deliveries to 62 food programs that serve more than 250,000 people per year across northern Toronto. However this food bank also manages to include a small, but growing portion of fresh fruits and vegetables in their deliveries thanks to its Making Connections Program. Originating in 1998 out of North York Basic Needs Action Network, the program now partners with health centres, churches, community houses and Toronto Public Health aiming to increase access to fresh food for low income people, with an emphasis on targeting pregnant women at risk of delivering low birth rate babies.

The program employs a worker, usually a nutrition student from Ryerson University, to work with farmers donating excess produce to the food bank, to organise gleaning trips with farms at the end of harvesting time and to provide educational material and workshops on nutrition, food handling, food preparation and food storage. The program relies on the fact that many farms have produce that either has no market or is blemished, under or oversized yet still good enough for consumption. Farmers are generally happy to see their produce go to people in need rather than be dug under and wasted. The day that I went out with the truck to pick up produce, one new farmer donated over 300 kilos of potatoes that he said would otherwise have been dumped. At this stage the collection of vegetables from the 4 participating farms was not necessarily a financial success as it may have even been cheaper to some weeks buy the produce from the farmers market or supermarket once you have taken into account the day’s wages for the worker and the running costs of the truck, however the program felt that they were laying the groundwork for future success as the amount of farmers participating increased and those relationships between the farmers and the food bank developed and grew. They also felt that this program addressed some greater issues including the importance of local food, of establishing a relationship with where our food comes from, rescuing food from wastage and building up a strong and resilient local food network.

Gleaning Trip

Gleaning is the age old tradition of people being allowed into the farmers fields to gather what remains of the crops after they have been harvested.This produce would otherwise be turned back into the ground or left to rot in the field. Gleaning is a wonderful practice that allows farmers to reduce their wastage and can provide greater access to fresh food and a farm experience to those who may otherwise go without. On the day we joined a gleaning trip, Making Connections had organised a big yellow American school bus to come by a large public housing community centre to pick up 15 of us, mostly women and children. We travelled out to the edge of Toronto to the enormous Whittamores Berry Farm to glean strawberries from fields the farm had finished harvesting from. (see figure 5) A midsummer heatwave had ripened the strawberries all at once and the farm pickers couldn’t keep up, our field had only been lightly picked over and everyone proceeded to fill buckets and buckets, while kids were eating their own weight in strawberries. It was wonderful to hear people chattering in the fields as they bent to pick the endless supply of strawberries before them. In the bus on the way home everyone was tired and happy and full of strawberries bringing enough home to give to family and neighbours. The week before a bus load of gleaners had picked from a much riper field and the strawberries were quite soft so when the group returned to the city they prepared strawberry jam in a community kitchen. Kim Colbran, the Making Connections worker, explained that this year she was getting several calls a week from berry farmers asking her to bring a bus load of people to glean the strawberry fields – she was having trouble mobilising people to come as sometimes she only had a day or two’s notice. However she felt confident that as people grew accustomed to the idea of gleaning, it would become much easier to ring around and get a group together quickly.

Figure 5. Strawberry picking gleaning trip, Toronto Canada


PAR GAR is an acronym for Plant A Row Grow A Row, a volunteer based program that invites community gardeners to grow an extra row of vegetables for donation to their local food bank, soup kitchen, school or shelter. Established by the Canadian Association of Food Banks, the Composting Council of Canada and the Garden Writers Association of America the program builds on the long standing spirit of gardeners loving to share their harvest with others. In 2005 the program boasted a whopping 1.5 million pounds of donated produce since its inception in 2000. PARGAR lets participating gardeners know what vegetables and fruits keep best (root vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, peas, tomatoes, onions, apples, pears etc) and are therefore the most appropriate for donation.

We attended a monthly PAR GAR committee meeting and were impressed to see so many representatives from local agencies and local government (including FoodShare, the Stop, Making Connections, Canadian Composting Council, Food Animators and Daily Bread Food Bank). PAR GAR was an overlapping layer on many of the urban agriculture projects that we saw – most gardens had some PAR GAR rows and were participating in producing food and contributing towards their community’s food security.

Just Food

Just Food began in 1994 as a volunteer group made up of food-system leaders promoting a holistic approach to food, hunger and sustainable agricultural issues. It now has a paid staff supporting community gardens and championing the local food movement with manuals, gardener training workshops, food research, a well as a farmer’s market program run from community gardens and a Community Supported Agriculture Scheme supplying 37 different sites around New York, many of them in low income areas.

CSA’s in NYC

Community Supported Agriculture Scheme (CSA’s) are food buying clubs also known as subscription farming. At the beginning of the season individuals or groups prepurchase a share of the farmer’s harvest ensuring that the CSA members receive fresh produce at affordable prices and that the farmer has a guaranteed market who will share the risks growing the season’s crops. Regional farmers are linked with city communities promoting a direct relationship between grower and consumer. Over the past 10 years, Just Food has helped get over 30 CSA programs started in NYC and continues to work with new groups and new farmers.

The City Farms

During World War Two small urban Victory Gardens provided 40 percent of the nation's fresh produce during times of food shortages; Just Food believes urban agriculture projects have the capability to achieve similar successes to combat hunger and malnutrition in NYC today. The City Farms program works to increase access to fresh food for food insecure neighbourhoods. Just Food have developed and coordinate an extension service to assist people in growing, marketing and distributing more locally, community garden-grown food. Working in partnership with Green Guerrillas, Heifer Project International, Cornell Cooperative Extension-NYC, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, City Harvest and GreenThumb, Just Food offer community gardeners workshops, training materials, and networking opportunities in the areas of horticulture, marketing, garden preservation, leadership development and emergency food relief.

Community education and training is a major part of Just Food’s success allowing them to focus their energies on mobilising community leaders who can take on the on-ground responsibility of garden projects. This in turn means more projects can be established not being dependant on paid workers from outside communities for their survival. Community gardeners who had taken part in training and development are now running their own workshops on topics such as preserving, preparation and storing of food and cooking demonstrations for which they are paid. Just Food believes that improved food security can only be achieved when access to food is increased as well as when information about how to prepare food is made available.

About 30 urban farms and community gardens are members of The City Farms Program and Just Food have helped to start four urban farm stands which are independent farmers markets run by the community. The day that we visited the East New York Farmers market, located in an economically depressed area, we walked through town from the train station noticing that there wasn’t anywhere to buy fresh produce. At the end of the street we found the bustling market bursting with affordable and fresh produce grown by local people just down the road in community gardens (see figure 6). The stall holders we talked to, ranging from local youth to senior citizens, all expressed that a little bit of extra income was a good incentive, but the main reason they lovingly grew the food and ran the market stall was to address the serious issues of food insecurity and limited access to fresh food of their neighbours and friends.

Figure 6. A community gardener stall holder at the East New York Farmers Market, New York USA


Urban Agriculture, including community garden projects, community food markets and partnerships with small, local farmers can contribute strongly to the development of greater community food security as demonstrated by projects in Australia and overseas. In many of the projects highlighted, education, training and skill sharing were the key components empowering and strengthening communities through knowledge, employment, responsibility, meaningful activity and service to others. By developing relationships between these networks, local government planners, health workers, and other organisations concerned with health and food security can create a stronger, more sustainable local food network that improves access to fresh food for all helping to create vibrant, resilient and healthy communities.


Embassy of Brazil (2002)Emabssy of Brazil, United Kingdom. Accessed January 2006.

Halweil B. (2004) Eat Here, New York: Norton & Company Ltd

Roberts W (2005) Toronto City’s Food Policy Accessed January 2006.

Shiva V (2004) Terra Madre 2006. The world of food communities. Accessed December 2005.

Wikipedia (2006) Urban Agriculture. Accessed January 2006

Winne M (2003) Issue Brief: America's Farms Feed America's Children Accessed January 2005.

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