Urban farming may save the hip-hop generation

Reforming our own health habits should be a simpler and cheaper task than overhauling the nation's health care system.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

When Darren “The Human Beat Box” Robinson was at his improvising best, rapping for “The Fat Boys” during the 80’s and early 90’s, fat was phat. Their discography is peppered with titles like “Big and Beautiful,” “Getting’ Hefty” and “All You Can Eat,” which featured the lyrics:

“Give me some chicken, franks and fries.
And you can pass me a lettuce, I’m a pass it by.”

Robinson was known more for what came out of his mouth than went in it, but it was the latter that was his undoing. When he died of a heart attack in 1995 at the age of 28, no coffin was required to house his 450-pound frame. He was cremated.

For the surviving members of the hip-hop generation, fat is definitely not where it’s at. 50 Cent pushes diet supplements, Lil’ Kim buffs up for “Dancing with the Stars,” and one can only imagine the diet and exercise regimens necessary to maintain the sculpted bodies of Beyoncé and Nelly.

For those with more limited resources than those stars (just about everyone else on the planet), access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a more realistic goal, and the increasing popularity of farmer’s markets and urban farming will go a long way toward achieving it. Those movements, well established in some areas, and in their nascent stages in others, are being buffeted by the crosswinds of long-held habits, and innovation.

According to the USDA, there are now some 4,800 farmer’s markets in the country, the majority of those being seasonal markets. Many of those in urban areas are well-established and stable financially – staples of their communities. But there’s a bigger picture.

Ladonna Redmond is a woman who can choose from among many titles: “Founder, President, CEO, Board Member” among them. She prefers “food justice activist.” An expert on urban agriculture based in Chicago, Redmond cites the creation of smaller-scale markets and stores, and the conversion of vacant lots to urban farm sites as two trends in urban areas that are effecting positive change. But, she cautions, “We have yet to prove we can feed everybody… we need more vendors, more producers… communities of color still come up short.”

And that starts at the production level. The percentage of minority vendors at farmer’s markets is more than twice that in the general farming population, but that number speaks more to the dearth of minority farmers than anything else. Redmond advocates a grass-roots approach to the problem: “More people of color are getting involved. People who better understand the communities’ needs.”

One innovative program in Detroit, “Peaches and Greens,” takes a page from the neighborhood ice cream man – only the trucks are stocked with fresh produce instead of fudge pops and ice-cream sandwiches. Volunteers grow the produce in nearby community gardens. “Hip Hop for Health” in St. Louis targets middle school students, using music as the back beat for a curriculum on healthy food choices. Other programs reach school-age children as young as kindergartners, helping them build school gardens and espousing the benefits of eating locally grown foods.

Targeting children and creating a new generation of locavores is part of the vision. The image of kids and vegetables as natural enemies is an antiquated one. Many programs focusing on children have enjoyed wide success but, as ever, children will take their cues from their parents more often than not. Says Redmond, “The original hip-hop generation is fifty years old! We want them to be a positive influence.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended improving the availability of fresh produce to low-income areas as part of a broader effort to combat obesity. Redmond argues that the role of fresh produce in preventing disease – and in people taking responsibility for their own individual health – are topics largely absent in the national conversation on health care reform. “We need to make the link between food access and health outcomes. (and ask ourselves) What is the role of food consumption habits in health reform? ”

Reforming our own health habits should be a simpler and cheaper task than overhauling the nation’s health care system. But pricing is an issue for market-goers. As a general rule, eating only seasonally available local produce is 20-50% cheaper than eating fruits and vegetables trucked or flown in from many miles away. But many urban farmer’s market vendors tend to gravitate toward the more affluent urban areas, where consumers can expect to pay more for their produce than they would in the supermarkets.

All the more reason, Redmond claims, to use a hyper-local approach when creating urban markets and farm sites. It not only answers the food access question, but also she says, “It creates jobs in the community and expands its economic capacity.”

That’s a rap with enough heft to satiate even the most intense craving for fresh produce.

View more stories on healthy foods in urban America:
Gross inequality in access to healthy food
Grocery truck caters to underserved market
More veggies, less meat; flexitarians find middle ground
Where you live can affect what you weigh