Updated: Nov 6, 2020
Access to healthy and affordable food in cities is an age-old challenge for all urbanites. With longer food chains between the farm and the urban consumer (see photo 1), fluctuating oil and food prices, global climate change, while issues concerning access to the right quantity and quality of food at a reasonable price have become a major concern across the world. While urban residents, in general, are increasingly less in control of their food, the situation is even more problematic for the urban poor.
Access to food during Covid-19:
The Covid-19 outbreak and the associated lockdown across urban centres have further highlighted the precarity of our urban food systems.
In India, during the nearly 100 days long lockdown since March-end, although the transportation of essentials including food items has been permitted, the supply of fruits and vegetables from peri-urban and rural areas to the city has been disrupted/slowed to a certain extent. Furthermore, the movement and delivery of food items through e-commerce platforms such as BigBasket or Amazon Pantry have also faced substantial restrictions.
Photo 1: Delinked food production and consumption in cities. (infographic designed by picklewix.com).
Agricultural migrant labourers have stopped working and many of them have gone back to their hometowns/states causing some disruption to production. Additionally, the highly centralised supply chain in cities has exposed the risks associated with such systems where only limited public or private agencies maintain direct ties with the farmers. For instance, in Chennai, the Koyambedu wholesale market, which is the primary supply node, was declared a Covid-19 hotspot, thereby resulting in a city-wide disruption in vegetable and fruit supply.
This situation reveals the complex repercussions of the delinking and distancing of food producers and consumers. To top it all, more than the virus outbreak, the loss of livelihood is posing a bigger threat to the thousands of urban poor, who are now struggling to feed themselves and are having to depend on the government and the non-government agencies’ relief supply(1).
A wake-up call to reimagine the urban food system:
Newspaper articles and reports seem to highlight how those involved in some form of farming, kitchen gardening, or community gardening in cities and its outskirts are in a better position to cope with present disruptions in the food system across the world(2,3,4) (see photo 2).
Photo 2: A family-owned terrace garden in Ernakulam city, the business capital of Kerala, abundant in papayas, chikoos, and pumpkins (Source).
In a recent article, a resident of Besant Nagar, Chennai, was reported saying that “she is not rushing to the vegetable market for fresh produce; she just has to source it all from her terrace garden which is filled with various keerai, lady’s fingers, pomegranates, papayas, strawberries and more”(5). Similarly, another resident of Noida growing tomatoes, potatoes and okhra in her kitchen garden explained why she is beginning to take gardening even more seriously now. She explains, "(A)t first it was just a hobby but when I saw the risk of resources depleting at supermarkets and also that exposure to fruits and vegetables may increase chances of coronavirus transmission through the surface, I thought it might be a good idea to be self-sufficient”(6). Chennai Resilience Centre’s online survey also found that many Chennai residents appreciate the “stress busting” nature of gardening while few also highlight their ability to access some amount of greens, herbs, and vegetables from their self-grown gardens during the lockdown (Personal communication with Chennai Resilience Officer, Mr. Krishnamohan Ramachandran).
While the overall percentage of people growing their own food in cities is quite low, with a general improvement in awareness amongst the middle-class regarding the quality of food and health, more and more people are trying their hands at home gardening. The Covid-19 pandemic has provided an additional push. A Google Trends report suggests that online searches for “gardens” are up since February 2020 and enterprises selling plants and seeds are experiencing higher business in the US(7, 8).
World-wide many nations are beginning to think about more sustainable urban food policies(9). For instance, Singapore currently imports more than 90% of its food and is aiming to meet 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030 by heavily advocating urban rooftop gardening to support this cause(10). As such, there is a growing recognition amongst governments, residents, and experts alike, that urban farming/gardening can be an important ‘shock absorber’ during disruptions like the one we are facing now (ibid).
Contextualising the re-imagined urban food system: the need for equitability and resilience
Reports and experiences from across the world highlight the significant role that urban agriculture can play in ensuring urban resilience to future Covid-19 like situations and to meet one of society’s basic needs. However, as we begin to reimagine a more sustainable urban food system, we must do so while being sensitive to the local context. For Indian cities, this means being sensitive to the needs of the urban poor who make up a substantial proportion of the cities’ population (see photo 3). Advocating and supporting urban home gardens only amongst those who can afford it, without integrating vulnerable groups in the plan for a sustainable food system will have limited impact.
Photo 3: The Tamil Nadu Corporation for Development of Women in Nungambakkam, Chennai, maintains a rooftop garden where low-income women from the local neighbourhood work (Source).
As such, Chennai Resilience Centre’s Urban Horticulture Initiative is planning a more integrated approach that will pay specific attention to the city’s poor. This initiative is thus aiming to help build more urban farms/gardens in schools and residential neighbourhoods covering all socio-economic strata. More importantly, it is simultaneously planning to invest in skill development programs for the lower-income groups to offer them livelihood opportunities in gardening, food processing, and retail/marketing. The hope is to build a more resilient local food production-distribution system while strengthening the capacity of the urban poor (see).
Exposing the ingrained weaknesses of the current food system in a way and at a scale never experienced before, the Covid-19 outbreak has proved to be a global wake up call for everyone to start reimagining what a resilient urban food system should look like and urban gardening definitely seems to be taking up a central role within such re-imaginations. However, we need to make sure such resilience-building efforts are also equitable as we build back better post Covid-19 pandemic.
Author: Dr Parama Roy
Lead Researcher, Okapi Research & Advisory
Adjunct Faculty, Indian Institute of Technology – Madras
For a shorter article published in Hindu Open Page see: