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Question of the Month ~ November 2012


Q. What are states doing, or can they do, to promote urban agriculture?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 15 percent of the world’s food is grown in urban areas. And there was a time in U.S. history, too, when the country came to rely on local production. During World War II, millions of Americans planted fruit and vegetable “victory gardens” at private residences.
These gardens reportedly grew 40 percent of the nation’s produce by the war’s end.
Today, a mix of factors — food insecurity, the rise in blighted and vacant land in urban areas, and concerns about environmental sustainability, for example — has renewed interest in promoting such activity in this country. Urban agriculture can take many forms, from backyard and community gardening to livestock grazing in open spaces.
A few states outside the Midwest, such as New York and New Jersey, have passed legislation with the explicit aim of facilitating the development of community gardens and/or urban farming.
Meanwhile, in this region, policymakers are considering urban agriculture as one way to reduce blight in cities with declining populations and more tracts of vacant land.
Ohio and Michigan are among the states that have pioneered the use of land banks: enacting new state laws that let local jurisdictions create entities that can accept title to vacant properties and help find a new use for them.
When a land-bank program was begun in the Michigan city of Flint, an urban agriculture coordinator was hired to help find suitable properties.
Under Ohio’s land-bank law (HB 313, passed in 2010), the first property that the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corporation transferred became a community garden.
Another policy option for states is “cottage food laws,” which free small-scale producers from some health and food-safety rules. One result of these laws is that urban gardeners are able to directly sell their produce and/or products containing ingredients from their gardens.
Seven of the 11 Midwestern states (all but Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wisconsin) have such laws, according to the website CottageFoodLaws.com.
Most state laws specify the types of foods that can be sold and require specific labeling. Illinois’ SB 840, signed into law in 2011, requires would-be food operators to receive training and pass a certification exam.
Operators must then register with the county health department and take periodic refresher courses.
A third option is the creation of statewide food-policy councils. According to the American Planning Association, these councils should be involved in a wide range of objectives, many of which help in the development of urban agriculture — recommending policy language on ordinances related to beekeeping and backyard chickens, for example, or identifying outdated land-use regulations or restrictive zoning codes.
Illinois and Michigan have established food-policy councils, both states aiming to increase consumption of locally grown and processed foods. One of Illinois’ goals is that by 2020, 20 percent of the food products purchased by state agencies must be locally produced.


Question of the Month response written by Laura Kliewer, a senior policy analyst for CSG Midwest.