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Opinion: Let’s hear it for urban agriculture

How one NGO in the heart of sprawling Sao Paulo has taken it upon itself to feed the masses.

Brazilian Estevao Silva da Conceicao jokes with his daughter at the garden of his house at Paraisopolis favela in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Growing food in cities isn’t a new concept for the poor.

Rural farmers forced to migrate to urban areas in the developing world in search of work have long turned to their agricultural skills as a way of feeding themselves and their families when all else fails.

It is only recently that urban agriculture has garnered attention in the first world, something many attribute to the growing popularity and romanticizing of small-scale organic farming.

But in the pockets of poverty in the first world and developing cities alike, urban agriculture has more to do with public health and economic development than it does with environmental trendiness. From Bogota to Milwaukee, Cape Town to Philadelphia, Nairobi to New Orleans, urban agriculture is earning a serious rep as a legitimate development strategy.

NGOs, municipal governments and grassroots community groups are increasingly integrating urban agriculture into policies and programs to combat the root causes of hunger and poverty in poor urban areas.

In the sprawling megalopolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil, I recently witnessed how a humble NGO is quietly transforming an entire region of the city by building micro-enterprises out of organic farms and gardens.

Sao Paulo is the world's third largest metropolitan area, trailing only Tokyo and Mexico City in size. In recent decades, Sao Paulo has grown at an alarming rate. As big agribusinesses buy up land that has historically been used for subsistence agriculture, rural Brazilians — particularly those in the northeast — are displaced from their homes and forced to migrate toward cities, particularly those in the more prosperous southern part of the country.

But like many developing cities, Sao Paulo cannot accommodate its rapid expansion. In the favelas ringing the city, crime, hunger, poor sanitation and high unemployment rates are daily threats to struggling residents.

Cidades Sem Fome (CSF), which means Cities Without Hunger, is a Sao Paulo NGO that uses urban agriculture as a tool to address a number of the favelas' health and social issues. The idea is simple: use vacant land to put unemployed people to work by providing them a venue in which to use their agricultural skills.

Hans Dieter Temp, the founder and current director of CSF, was born in Mato Grosso do Sul to a farming family. Growing up in agriculture, he traveled to Germany to pursue a university degree in politics and technical agricultural skills.

When I met Hans in Sao Paulo earlier this month, he took me on a tour that moved backward, from the point of consumption to the source.

Our first stop was a small market stall in one of the city's most notorious favelas. There, local residents hawked the produce from their gardens and those of neighboring favelas. Locals came to stock up on collard greens, tomatoes, onions, peppers, herbs and a handful of crops unique to Brazil. These are foods that are often hard to come by at favela groceries, and they provide necessary nutrients for preventing disease and malnutrition.