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Urban Harvest

Urban farming

The Lege wants to be more supportive of it.

Rep. Borris Miles

For the first time that anyone could recall, the Texas House Agriculture and Livestock committee had a joint hearing with the House Urban Affairs committee to discuss ways to help expand community gardens and urban farming. The goal: increase access to affordable and healthy food.

“It’s a well worthwhile deal. I see a great need,” said House Agriculture Chairman Rick Hardcastle, R-Vernon. “I see it as a true change in demographics because the big grocery stores don’t build in urban Texas, or they close up and move out to the suburbs and the average mom-and-pop grocery store doesn’t carry fresh vegetables. ”

Community gardening in inner cities has gained momentum in most big cities around the country but Texas ranks last, Scott Howard, vice chair of Houston’s Urban Harvest, told lawmakers: “It’s kind of embarrassing.”

He believes vegetable gardens should be developed at every elementary school across Texas.

“This is where kids learn where their food comes from and how it’s grown,” Howard said.

Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, is playing a key role in trying to expand urban farming in Texas and appears to have won support from rural lawmakers, who said they would help him move legislation next year when the Texas Legislature returns to a regular legislative session.

“Urban farming would help fight obesity and diabetes in the inner city,” Miles said.

“This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s a people issue,” he said. “It’s part of the Republican thread to be self-sufficient, so how can they deny it? All we’re asking to do is be able to sustain life for ourselves.”

State and local governments could help increase interest and support for urban gardens with tax incentives for land owners who allow community residents to grow vegetables on vacant city lots that otherwise could turn into eyesores. Utility companies could be granted liability waivers on easements and agriculture exemptions could be expanded to encourage inner city gardening.

Rep. Miles discussed this issue when I interviewed him. Our school does in fact have a vegetable garden, and they periodically send some veggies home with the kids. I don’t know how much that encourages better eating habits, but it’s pretty cool in itself. Certainly, using vacant lots as vegetable gardens is better than letting them be overgrown eyesores, and to the extent that the Lege can help cities encourage that it’s a good thing. It looks like this effort has some momentum behind it, so it’ll be worth watching next session.

Local food

One of the more interesting results from this year’s Houston Area Survey was the attitude expressed about locally grown food. From a Houston Tomorrow press release:

An overwhelming majority of Houstonians feel that it is important to be able to buy locally grown food, with 42% responding that it is “very important” and 41% that it is “somewhat important.” Only 16% of Houstonians report that access to locally grown food is not important to them. Rice University sociologist Dr. Stephen Klineberg released the new Houston Area Survey today, revealing these results for a question that he asked this year for the first time.

The local food movement in the 13-county Houston region has been gaining strength following the Food & Sustainable Prosperity conference hosted by Houston Tomorrow in 2008. A broad coalition of nonprofits, government agencies, growers, and engaged citizens meets monthly as the Houston Food Policy Workgroup, hosted by Houston Tomorrow. The mission of the workgroup is to nurture the growth of a sustainable local food system, accessible to all, through education, collaboration, communication, and creation of a food policy council for the Houston region. Interested parties from across the region are welcome to participate.

You can read the full release here. As I’ve mentioned, my wife is the Chair of the Central City Co-op board, so this is near and dear to her heart. She was very happy when I showed her the release. For more information about local food in Houston, visit Central City or Urban Harvest; the Chron had a nice story about one of their more successful projects this past weekend.