Can urban agriculture reduce food insecurity for the urban poor?

Urban agriculture has become a popular vision of the future city – a sustainable way to feed rapidly growing and urbanised populations. However, we must ask the question, who does urban agriculture benefit and will it support the urban poor in reaching food security?

Image: 'June Garden' by Christopher Porter via Flickr Commons

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, food insecurity is a lack of secure access to sufficient and nutritious food required for normal growth, development and a healthy lifestyle (Napoli, 2011:9). Food insecurity can occur from a range of factors, including inadequate housing and basic infrastructure, limited access to services, insufficient income, increasing food prices, lifestyle changes (food producers become paying consumers) and gender disparities. In developing countries where urban poverty rates exceed 50%, greater than 60% of incomes are spent on food. This leads to high rates of hunger, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other diet-related diseases (Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2009).

While food insecurity is a major concern in developing countries, it also remains a tough reality for people living in developed countries, including Australia. As presented at the Sydney Environment Institute’s Eating in the City – Food [at] Sydney Seminar, about 8% of residents within the City of Sydney metropolitan area identify as food insecure – which equates to approximately seventeen thousand people in Sydney city who do not have access to nutritious food on a daily basis. Additionally, about half a million Australians visit a food bank each month and it’s estimated that 40% of people choose to purchase cheap carbohydrates instead of fruit and vegetables.

Is urban agriculture the answer?

Urban agriculture has been a key method to support local livelihoods for many years. There have been many successful initiatives that range from backyard and rooftop gardens, community gardens, urban farms, peri-urban farms, as well as more technical approaches, such as vertical hydraulic systems (Zeeuw and Drechsel, 2015).

Urban agriculture has the potential to reduce food insecurity for the urban poor as it enhances local food options, can offer a greater variety of affordable fruit and vegetables, can reduce transport barriers and can become a source of income for those buying and selling local produce. In an era of climate change and climate events, such as floods, droughts and cyclones, a local source of nutritious food will support low-income households become more food secure and less vulnerable to fluctuating food prices in farmers’ markets and supermarkets (Tcoli, 2013).

Many cooperatives, local governments and non-for-profit programs offer training workshops on urban farming, nutrition and cooking, and provide volunteering options in place for discounted produce, as well as cost-price options for local produce. Through the assistance of governments, development agencies and not-for-profit organisations, urban agriculture has successfully supported vulnerable urban populations gain access to nutritious food in cities such as Havana, Gaza, Mexico City, and throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, in order for urban agriculture to be successful and reduce food insecurity for the urban poor, it must be accessible, affordable and inclusive. Support from local governments, implementing sustainable urban planning and incorporating food security into public policy will reduce some of the barriers traditionally faced by the urban poor, including tenure and legal obstacles in accessing small plots of land to grow produce (Beach, 2013). Other barriers can include time management (particularly for carers and main household income providers), upfront costs of home gardens, and access and affordability to public transport to commute to community gardens, urban farms and farmers’ markets (Letts, 2013). With the support of key agencies, these barriers can be mitigated, and urban agriculture can play an important role in reducing food insecurity for all.

For information on affordable urban agriculture in Sydney, you can visit:

  • Pocket City Farms: workshops, affordable produce, children’s education, volunteering programs and other services.
  • Crop Swap Sydney: an online platform to find local food producers and facilitate a community-based trade system of home-grown produce.
  • Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network: an online platform to find community gardens in your area and links to community blogs that offer information on DIY urban agriculture.
  • Or visit your local council for information on local urban agriculture projects.


Beach, M. (2013). Urban Agriculture Increases Food Security for Poor People in Africa. Washington: PRB Publications
Food and Agriculture Organisation  (2009). High-Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050. Rome: FAO.
Letts, E.M. (2013). Urban agriculture and various food sourcing strategies: How can they mitigate food insecurity amongst the urban poor in Cape Town, South Africa? Kingston: ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Napoli, M. (2011). Towards a Food Insecurity Multidimensional Index. Rome: Roma Tre University.
Zeeuw, H. and Drechsel, P. (2015). Cities and Agriculture: Developing Resilient Urban Food Systems. Abingdon: Routledge.

Megan Battaglia is a policy officer in the sector of environmental law with a focus on human rights and social justice. She is currently studying a Masters of Sustainability at the University of Sydney and has a key interest in sustainable community development, indigenous rights and natural resource management.

Megan will be speaking at the Sydney Ideas lecture ‘Urban Farming: Feeding the future?’ For details and to register, click here.