Building Resilient Food Systems: The Chennai Urban Farming Initiative

Building Resilient Food Systems
Written by Rohit M Nair and Akshaya Ayyangar-Chennai Resilience Centre
Friday, 04 November 2022

The Chennai Resilience Centre (CRC) is an organization dedicated to building an ‘Enlightened, Just and Integrated’ Chennai. CRC is a unit of Care Earth Trust and is fostered by Resilient Cities Network and Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. CRC aims to promote resilience in individuals, communities, and institutions to address the challenges of rapid urbanization and climate change in Chennai.

The Chennai Urban Farming Initiative (CUFI), an initiative of CRC, funded by Arsht Rock seeks to build climate resilience by setting up urban food gardens across the city to achieve food security and better livelihood opportunities for vulnerable groups whilst also contributing to greening and cooling efforts in the city. CUFI hopes to drive a city-wide urban farming movement and encourage the transition toward sustainable local food systems.

The CUFI program is currently being implemented through Mobile Vegetable Garden Kits . CUFI is a multi-stakeholder initiative to set up gardens for vulnerable communities in the city. CRC provides garden kits, training and capacity-building workshops on urban farming practices as well as operation and maintenance support to the beneficiaries.

The Program

The program has reached different types of beneficiaries from homeless shelters to integrated child development centers (Anganwadis) to schools and homes of low-income groups.

Fig. 1&2 Beneficiaries of the MVGK Program

Training and capacity-building workshops are provided to all beneficiaries on how to set up a kitchen garden, maintain it, and the general benefits of gardening. Specific topics include making the potting mixture, method of sowing and harvesting, water, sun and pest management and the general benefits of growing one’s own greens and vegetables. CRC also facilitates motivation sessions to orient people, especially school children to care for the environment and to encourage them to set up their own kitchen gardens.

Fig. 3-7 Training Sessions

Results

The CUFI program has produced a variety of outcomes and the most significant ones are listed here:

1. Improving access to fresh and organic produce

The program began during COVID-19 as a relief measure for low-income and vulnerable families to help them cut down on food expenditure while enabling access to fresh, organic and nutritious vegetables. Based on feedback from beneficiaries, the program was later expanded to a wide range of stakeholders, including day-care centers, homeless shelters and schools.

Our latest surveys show that 74 per cent of the 44 homeless shelters surveyed reported growing four to five greens provided to them. Anbagam, a homeless shelter, has turned its 1000 Sq. ft terrace into a thriving garden that produced close to 100 kgs of greens and vegetables between February and June 2022.

Of 216 day-care centers surveyed, 48% reported growing all five varieties of greens provided with the MVGK kits. Teachers in day-care centers are particularly happy with the produce as they are directly able to use it for cooking their mid-day meals and distribute it to their ‘Area Mothers’. Both, the teachers and parents indicated that providing safe food to their children was one of the most important outcomes.

Fig. 8&9 Harvest from day-care centres

2. Food circularity

CRC encourages beneficiaries to adopt measures such as seed saving, home composting and water management techniques. Rather than adding to the landfill, food waste at home is converted into nutrient-rich manure for the garden creating a closed loop. Localized systems of production and consumption reduce food miles and minimize wastage without compromising access to safe and nutritious food.

3. Environmental Education

MVGK has also become an impromptu environmental education tool at day-care centers and homeless shelters for children. Gardens have become excellent sites for teaching children about plants and their life cycles, water and pest management, food and nutrition etc. In addition, gardening teaches them to treat food with respect and avoid wastage.

“Children are happy to sow seeds in the garden. they pour water & they ask many questions about the plants. Children are very happy and also pick the leaves and flowers” – a representative from an ICDS centre in West Chennai

Fig. 10-14 Children involved in gardening activities

The goal of CUFI

While the program so far has been largely about promoting urban farming for self-consumption, the goal of CUFI is to set up a social enterprise to scale up the program via model gardens and by encouraging middle and upper middle-income localities to take up terrace vegetable gardens to produce organic foods for sale. This social enterprise will set up a retail value chain and help the terrace garden community increase their margins through investment in value added organic products and branding.

Figure 15&16: Example of an urban thottam brand

Image credits: Chennai Resilience Centre

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