Earth Day 2021: Improving land access, food production in urban communities

The events of the past year have highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of our food system, and the importance of investing in urban food production and land access. The pandemic has significantly increased food insecurity in Massachusetts, while agricultural and food businesses have suffered due to supply chain disruptions and loss of key markets. This year’s spotlight on racial injustice has also illuminated the disparities in land access and food production in urban and minority communities.

Access to land is essential for those who seek to increase productive green spaces, specifically for fresh food production. At the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), we recognize the importance of land sovereignty within urban neighborhoods as it contributes to environmental justice and ensuring equity for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers. Nationally, the USDA’s 2017 Agricultural Census indicates that 95 percent of commercial farmers are white and own 98 percent of farmland.

In an earlier report, the USDA estimated that less than a quarter of this farmland would be made available to non-relatives, thus highlighting that access to land ultimately determines who will be able to successfully farm. Land ownership is key for the stability of a farm, allowing for long-term investments for infrastructure to improve its profitability and food production.

MDAR’s commitment to advance urban food production in low- to moderate-income communities in the Commonwealth was established with the creation of its Urban Agriculture Program. Since 2013, nearly 90 projects designed to increase production, processing, and marketing of produce grown and sold in urban centers across Massachusetts have been funded through the program. The program has also provided resources for community gardens, increasing access to fresh food for urban residents. Both of these initiatives address the various challenges of small-scale farming and food production in densely populated areas. 

But we know this is not enough to resolve these long-standing disparities and injustices. In response to food insecurity issues created by the pandemic, last year the Baker-Polito Administration created the Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program, which has now awarded over $35 million to awardees including food banks and urban farms to build a more resilient food system in the Commonwealth and connect healthy, local food to underserved communities.

Last year, MDAR began the process of creating a strategic plan to address Environmental Justice, a key initiative for the Baker-Polito Administration, which will outline actions for promoting and integrating environmental justice considerations across all of our programs, policies, and activities. We are also committed to improving equal access and meaningful involvement for all constituents, with respect to environmental protection and the equitable development, implementation, and accessibility to information and resources, such as land.

We continue to work with our partners and grantees to ensure opportunities in the agricultural sector are accessible for environmental justice communities. A great example can be found in Boston, where farming advocates are working to reclaim urban spaces for local food production. The Urban Farming Institute (UFI) serves the communities of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan through its innovative farmer training initiative, education programing, food production business, and a community land trust for urban farms.

Our agency provided $30,000 to the Urban Farming Institute to convert three vacant sites in Dorchester and Roxbury into farmland. From this initial investment, UFI has grown into a premier farming organization, increasing its footprint in environmental justice communities with additional production spaces, including two greenhouses, one of which is now supporting other beginning community farmers so they may nurture their new farm ventures.

UFI’s land trust will preserve and protect land for generations to come, creating more opportunities for land sovereignty and supporting neighborhoods to become healthier and self-sustaining. Their farming network provides opportunities for residents to access fresh, nutritious food, and is contributing to the economic and environmental resilience of these communities by localizing the food system.

Another critical community organization is the Boston Farms Community Land Trust, which has been working since 2017 to secure vacant lots for farm sites, providing opportunities for BIPOC farmers within the sited neighborhoods.

Organizations like these across the Commonwealth are creating solutions for addressing fresh food access as well as land access for BIPOC farmers. Yet there is more to be done and with the Baker-Polito Administration’s directive for an enhanced Environmental Justice plan, MDAR is working to ensure that we address historically underserved farmers through our programmatic work and our policies.

As we celebrate Earth Day this year, we are committed to finding solutions by working with our agricultural and community partners for greater access to land and local food production for all residents, especially in environmental justice and urban communities.

John Lebeaux is the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources

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