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How one NGO in the heart of sprawling Sao Paulo has taken it upon itself to feed the masses.
Next, we crossed the street to a large urban garden. Neat rows of lovingly tended lettuce, herbs, cabbage, kale, dandelion greens and more spread across the red dirt. A large compost pile sat decomposing aside a row of banana trees, and a chicken and duck coop bordered the garden on one side.
Community members — primarily women — Hans explained to me, tend the rows. By having work so close to their homes, they are able to stay nearby to their children, a welcome alternative to commuting more than two hours in choking traffic to work in the inner-city service industry.
In addition to a source of income, the garden has proved a catalyst of peacemaking in neighborhoods plagued by gang warfare and bitter ethnic divisions. Hans relies upon his staff of four to help set up new gardens, but the training of new gardeners is the responsibility of community veterans. In this way, communities build their capacity to provide for themselves, and the need for institutional assistance is minimized.
In addition, through the sharing of crops and recipes, barriers are softened and often broken down entirely, bringing a stronger sense of community and cooperation in the areas containing gardens.
Next, Hans drove us to his home, an airy apartment in a favela that he shares with his wife, young son and in-laws. Most educated folks would balk at the idea of living among such dire poverty and notorious crime, but Hans understands that living in the community in which he works is vital to building trust and credibility among the population he aims to help.
The NGO's flagship garden is located kitty-corner to his home, serving as a model that he can show to potential investors. We chatted briefly with Carlito, who tends the small plot and vends the fruits of the harvest. Pride in his work radiated from his beaming smile.
Our final stop was the demonstration site, several acres of productive farmland that are also home to three large greenhouses, a creek for irrigation, a seedling nursery, a pond soon to be used for raising carp and tilapia and a caretaker's home.
The ripple effects of CSF's work are numerous and widespread. To name a few: nutrition improves; neighborhoods become safer; women acquire business skills; air becomes cleaner; and money circulates in poor communities.
Hans relies on public/private partnerships to sustain his work and he is finding that, increasingly, big businesses are eager to add a sustainability component to their philanthropic image. As a result, much of the land used for the gardens is owned privately by some of Brazil's largest companies. Land above pipes or underneath powerlines that cannot be developed is fertile ground for agriculture projects.
For skeptics, there are numbers to prove CSF’s success. In only six years, Hans and his staff have set up 21 agriculture sites, providing income for more than 660 favela residents. CSF's determination to equip communities with the skills necessary to sustain the gardens on their own frees up the team to pursue new projects, adding to the prolific nature of their work.
Neither Hans nor I is naive enough to think that urban agriculture can become the sole source of food for metropolises like Sao Paulo, New York and Tokyo. But we agree that it can become a vital component of sustainable urban development, simultaneously addressing a number of complex social, economic and health issues.
Agriculture is a universal language, connecting us all in the need to eat. Thousands of miles from the gardens I tend in Brooklyn, as Hans and I harvested lettuce and kale in the heart of Sao Paulo, I found myself feeling right at home.
Sara Franklin is an independent food systems consultant and freelance writer. Her work focuses on community health, rural-urban development channels, social justice and urban agriculture.