WERA1053: Urban Agriculture and Food Systems

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

WERA1053: Urban Agriculture and Food Systems

Duration: 10/01/2023 to 09/30/2028

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

Across the country, interest in agriculture is growing amongst metropolitan, urban, and peri-urban communities. The 2018 Farm Bill directed NIFA to establish a new competitive grant program to support research, education, and extension (REE) activities focused on urban agriculture, indoor farming, and emerging opportunities for improved production, harvesting, transportation, aggregation, packaging, distribution, and markets. The Farm Bill provided $10 million in mandatory funding for the first year and authorized up to $10 million in discretionary funding annually for 2019 through 2023. The Western region of the United States is the most urbanized region, with very large cities interspersed amongst large open spaces. 

The American Planning Association’s 2011 report Urban Agriculture: Growing healthy, sustainable places defined urban and peri-urban agriculture as referring to “the production, distribution and marketing of food and other products within the cores of metropolitan areas (comprising community and school gardens; backyard and rooftop horticulture; and innovative food-production methods that maximize production in a small area) and at their edges (including farms supplying urban farmers markets, community supported agriculture and family farms located in metropolitan green belts).” In addition to the production of food, urban agriculture can have positive economic, social, and environmental impacts in cities by addressing community and public health issues, the multiple co-benefits of green space, and the economic development opportunities associated with small-scale farming and food businesses

Opportunities exist to develop new and strengthen existing agriculture activities being conducted amongst the diverse communities in our urban and metropolitan communities. The rich racial and ethnic diversity amongst urban communities who are using food production for economic opportunities, health and wellness (physical, emotional, and mental health), social and community development, and environmental benefits provide opportunities for expansion of existing and development of new REE projects, including purposeful and directed efforts related to equity, diversity, and inclusion.

An emerging opportunity exists to connect urban, indoor (aka Controlled Environment Agriculture; CEA) and innovations in agriculture. Increasing interest in placing CEA production in or near large urban centers provide unique REE opportunities ranging from technology financing and profitability, equity and access, planning policies, and technological advances in water and energy utilization. The opportunity exists to connect the current wealth of existing knowledge and research capacity amongst food, energy, and water systems in the West to emerge as a leader in urban and indoor agriculture systems.

In April 2020, NIFA published in the Federal Register a request for written stakeholder input on the Urban, Indoor and other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative [1]. The purpose of this Notice was to assist NIFA in developing the fiscal year 2020 Request for Applications for the Urban, Indoor and other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education and Extension Initiative. In response, the Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research (WCMER; a center created by the Western Extension Directors Association and led by Washington State University), the National Urban Extension Leaders (NUEL), and several urban Farm Bureau offices hosted listening sessions and conducted a survey in support of NIFA’s request for input [2]. Much of the data collected from these efforts are at the city or state level, allowing for state or regional analyses and identification of interest in and potential for REE proposal and program development.

The core problem is that urban agriculture is a simple term but has broad interpretations and is an area that Land-grant Universities historically have not focused on, and therefore many NGO’s have become active in providing services in this project area and do not always provide research-based information. A multi-state ERA project can address this problem by facilitating the LGU system in more fully engaging in this area, which has a large diversity of crops, systems, and audiences. This WERA will provide a coordinated effort to develop and support groups of investigators to communicate and coordinate their REE activities across disciplinary, organizational, and geographic boundaries, including supporting the development of multi-state, multi-disciplinary funding proposals addressing scientific, engineering, economic, environmental, and social aspects of urban agriculture. In addition to the new money available through NIFA, proposals could be developed through other NIFA programs supporting urban agriculture, including Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, AFRI Foundational Knowledge of Agriculture Production Systems, Specialty Crop Research Initiative, AFRI Small and Medium Sized Farms, Community Food Projects, and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. Additionally, funding for REE could be secured through corporate sponsored research, funding sources like the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, other federal sources (e.g., HUD, EPA, CDC), and foundations (e.g., RWJF, WKKF).



  1. Collaborate with federal agencies and national organizations to increase interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaborations among Research, Education, and Extension professionals, agency personnel, and others related to urban agriculture and food systems.
  2. Support the coordination of REE activities and exchange of information by establishing and supporting Core Themes and Cross-cutting Threads related to urban agriculture and food systems

Procedures and Activities

Objective 1:

Committee members will communicate and coordinate with regional and national representatives of federal agencies who share common goals related to supporting healthy individuals and production of and equitable access to nutritious food in urban areas (e.g. HUD, EPA, HHS) or specialize in agriculture and food systems but may not be effectively reaching urban producers (e.g. NRCS, FSA). These meetings will focus on identifying areas of collaboration and development of focused and integrated REE activities. Similarly, committee members will communicate and coordinate with local, regional and national representatives of relevant NGO’s and governmental organizations (e.g National League of Cities and the Large Urban County Caucus of the National Association of Counties) whose issues and audiences align with this ERA.

These agency and organization based communications will be one facet of identifying needs. Additionally, this ERA will undertake regular efforts (e.g., yearly or biannual) to assess the emerging and most critical REE needs related to urban agriculture, including professional development for researchers and practitioners. This may be accomplished through listening sessions like those conducted by the collaboration of WCMER, NUEL, and urban Farm Bureau offices with the development of USDA’s urban, indoor, and emerging agriculture program, surveys, SWAT or PESTEL analyses, or other activities such as the proposed workshop proposal submitted to USDA’s urban, indoor, and emerging agriculture program

Objective 2:

Development of REE activities: The overall goal of this ERA is to support the development, promotion, coordination, and sharing of data and results of interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and inter-institutional REE activities related to urban agriculture in its broadest sense. To accomplish this, we will support the development of Themes to organize REE activities along some commonalities and cross-cutting Threads that interconnect the themes. Within each theme, the ERA will support development of integrated research, extension, and educational projects. During the formation of the ERA we envision the following themes, threads, and specific activities; however, the ERA is meant to be dynamic, allowing for creation or sun-setting of themes, threads, and activities based on current participation.

  1. Theme - Production Systems: This theme will focus on the unique aspects of food and fiber production in urban and peri-urban communities, addressing issues scale, economics (including for-profit, shared-use, and general public good such as production for foodbanks, schools, and day/senior care), soil and non-soil-based systems, and animal protein, fur, and fiber systems.  Current projects that will be included in this theme

    1. Building Integrated Agriculture – lack of open space and high land prices present a constraint to establishment of new urban farms and gardens. A possible solution and a way to establish new agricultural sites, is to produce food on and in buildings, for example, through rooftop farming, green facades, and controlled environment agriculture. Further co-benefits can be gained by creating a closed-loop system where building outputs (heat, CO2, greywater, organic waste) are recycled as inputs to the agricultural system, and agricultural outputs (O2, irrigation water runoff, food crops) ultimately provide inputs to building systems and user. This project includes research aspects related to production as well as to building architecture to support and incorporate food production and extension activities to disseminate research and policy findings, along with graduate and undergraduate course development for architecture and agricultural students.

    2. Urban Soils – While soil contaminants (e.g. heavy metals) are a concern in urban agriculture, the physical, hydrological, and biological issues with urban soils are equally important but less studied. There is a need to to improve understanding of anthrosoils and their capacity for urban agriculture. This research project will support the understanding of anthrosoils and will disseminate results through Extension and the other elements detailed in the communications plan.

  2. Theme - Food SystemsThis theme will focus on the non-production aspects of the urban food system, including the fragility of the food system particularly in low socioeconomic communities. The Covid crisis highlighted the need for strong supply chains and the lack of structural stability within the food production, processing, and distribution systems. Inequities in the food system highlight the lack of food justice in many urban communities. The vast diversity of urban populations leads to gaps in food access. Many immigrant and indigenous communities residing in urban areas have little to no access to familiar foods, or foods that are important in traditional ritual practices that bind their communities together. This food justice issue causes a breakdown in community cohesiveness resulting in further inequity and disparate food access for urban residents. Current projects within this theme include:

    1. Tilth Alliance – Urban Farms & Gardens - Building coalitions with groups focused on urban food productions with an equity and justice framework

  3. Theme – Policy, Systems, and Environmental (PSE) change: This theme will focus on the broader system of urban agriculture and food systems, those elements upstream of direct education and extension programs and trainings offered to food system producers and practitioners. Current projects within this theme include:

    1. Fulfilling the Land Grant University Mission at State Agriculture Experiment Stations in Urban Interfaces - How have AES/RECs pivoted to meet the need of producers and the agricultural stakeholder community in the context of a rapidly developing peri-urban setting.

    2. Ordinances that Foster Urban Agriculture - This project aims to conduct research on, and create a curriculum for, ordinances that foster urban agriculture. (discuss guerrilla gardening?)

  4. Cross Cutting Thread – Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Justice (DEIJ): Upper income food production practices in urban areas have led to niche practices such as “foodie” movements and high value restaurants building kitchen gardens to provide fresh produce for urban residents with larger disposable incomes. Concurrently in the same concentrated geographical area lower income residents are consigned to “food deserts” which provide little in the way of fresh produce to incorporate into healthy diets. This disparity in the cornerstone of inequitable food justice practices that lead to extreme inequality in densely populated areas. 11.5 million of the 23.5 million living in food deserts have low incomes. Food deserts are disproportionately located in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. This thread will bring DEIJ intentionality across all themes. Current projects within this theme include:

    1. Revitalization, Realignment, and Reemergence: A Project Proposal for the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute Farm Program - Utilizing concepts from horticultural therapy, community-based social work, and vocational training and rehabilitation, this proposal will produce several deliverables designed to transform the farm and the treatment paradigm of the programs at NMBHI. The primary theory base will be situated in sustainable agroecology and food justice so that the economic, social, and environmental aspects of the people, cultures, and land will be prioritized and protected.

    2. Friendly Hmong Farms - supports local BIPOC farmers, communities, and the movement for food sovereignty, land reparations, and racial justice.

  5. Cross Cutting Thread – Co-creation and production: A guiding philosophy of the ERA will be to connect REE activities with communities to achieve the co-creation and co-production of project goals, knowledge, and action.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Generate interest in urban agriculture and food systems and increased awareness and knowledge of individuals, organizations, and their expertise working on urban agriculture and food systems REE activities. Comments: This outcome will be measured by: assessing the different expertise, disciplines, and type of organizations (e.g LGU, non-LGU, federal agencies, NGOs, C/FBOs) represented in the ERA; number of collaborative activities (e.g scholarly products, grant or workshop proposals) conducted by ERA or ERA members; number of institutions and organizations reached through network activities.
  • Increase the number of and collaboration amongst research, education, extension faculty and staff in LGUs along with non-LGU; federal, state, local, and tribal agency personnel; NGO, community- and faith-based personnel; and members of the urban agriculture and food system.
  • Increase the number and impact of REE activities in urban agriculture and food systems. Comments: Outcomes and impacts from the projects will be developed within Themes and Threads will be specific to the individual project and will be aggregated by the network for annual reporting. The network will support the development of common indicators, outcome, and impact within a theme or thread to support focus of projects toward addressing key urban agriculture and food systems issues. Performance indicators will include the number of educational programs, workshops, trainings, courses developed and delivered; number of stakeholders reached; production practices resulting in improved economic and environmental conditions; increases in food security, especially in marginalized and BIPOC communities; number of publications and presentations delivered
  • Production and dissemination of scholarly and stakeholder targeted activities to disseminate knowledge and initiate actions to improve the societal, economic, and environmental resilience of urban agriculture and food systems.
  • Production and dissemination of scholarly and stakeholder targeted activities to disseminate knowledge and initiate actions to improve the professional knowledge, skills, and abilities of the individuals and organizations (e.g. Extension and Extension professionals) attempting to meet those needs.
  • Increasing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the of the next generation urban agriculture and food systems workforce.
  • Identification of critical/key REE needs in urban agriculture and food systems as well as the professional knowledge, skills, and abilities of the individuals and organizations (e.g. Extension and Extension professionals) attempting to meet those needs.
  • Contribute to developing and refining federal agencies’ and governmental organizations’ activities and funding priorities related to urban agriculture and food systems.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

As the team makes progress on respective goals, in addition to the direct education to the target audience of any given project, dissemination of findings and resources will also be shared through various networks. For instance:

  • National Urban Extension Conference: This conference occurs once every two years. Team members will submit to make presentations about network activities

  • National Urban Extension Leaders (NUEL): Members will promote the work of the ERA through the national organization as well as through each of the 5 regions aligned with ECOP regions: Northeast, North Central, South, 1890s, and Western.

  • Urban Agriculture and Food Systems Program Action Team: This is the formal ECOP Program Action Team (PAT) for urban agriculture, working primarily at the Extension and LGU policy levels and developing national programs and partners. We will work collaboratively with this group as we have similar long-term objectives but will pursue them through different activities and approaches.

  • Discipline related opportunities: Team members will present their work and findings through their traditional disciplinary-based networks.

  • Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research (WCMER). With a focus on innovation for Extension and LGU’s in metropolitan communities and building new national partnerships (e.g. with Housing and Urban Development and the League of Cities).

  • Create an Urban Ag summit for sharing ideas and practices broadly across stakeholders with in-person, on-line, and hybrid options. Prior to initiating a broad summit, we would explore partnerships with existing conferences or summits, such as the Urban Food Systems Symposium (https://urbanfoodsystemssymposium.org/).


Leadership will include a chair, chair-elect, and secretary, each of whom will serve one-year terms, then roll up or off. Each Theme and Thread will select co-chairs, one each from research, extension, and education, as appropriate, to guide the work. These leaders will join the three overarching leaders to form a leadership committee.

The leadership committee will meet at least quarterly on conference calls to ensure the work remains on task and seamless among the various groups. Working teams will meet regularly via conference call to sustain progress. In case of vacancy of the chair position of a working group, the co-chair will take the lead until the working group selects a new chair. An annual virtual or face-to-face or hybrid meeting will be held to track progress, chart new courses as the work continues, and select leadership of team.

Literature Cited

[1]       Federal Register, "Solicitation of Stakeholder Input for Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agricultural Production Research, Education, and Extension Initiative," [Online]. Available: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/04/21/2020-08402/solicitation-of-stakeholder-input-for-urban-indoor-and-other-emerging-agricultural-production?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_name=&utm_source=govdelivery&utm_term=.

 [2]       Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research, [Online]. Available: https://metroextension.wsu.edu/urbanag/.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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