Wichita intends to enhance urban farming, decrease hunger in town
If there are 3 items Kansans prefer to perform, it’s increase meals, eat and make money.
And that the Wichita City Council has been granted an outline on Tuesday of a plan to make it easier for residents of the city to do all of the above.
The need is profound, said council member Becky Tuttle, who presented the plan to the council Tuesday and has been working it since before she got in office two years ago.
A community hunger survey three years ago showed a fourth of the population of Wichita live in “food deserts,” low-income areas where it’s a mile or more to the nearest full-service grocery store. And it’s probably even worse now as grocery chains have consolidated and closed stores in lower-income neighborhoods.
But food insecurity goes well beyond bricks and mortar to issues of transportation and education, Tuttle said.
“There’s a strong interest in building a local food system in Wichita and in Sedgwick County, but we really need a road map to guide that work,” she said. “One thing I think the city of Wichita does exceptionally well is we develop plans.”
The proposed Food System Master Plan would encourage more residents of the city and county to grow food, for personal use and to sell at farmer’s markets or elsewhere.
It has three broad goals:
▪ Coordinating between small-scale producers, markets and local government. The strategy envisions the creation of a Food and Farm Council that would advise local government on agricultural issues and educate the community on raising, preparing and selling local food.
▪ Improve access to healthy food. This goal is about reducing barriers between low-income residents and healthy eating, including such issues as the cost of food, locations and transportation to get it, as well as encouraging greater use of food assistance programs and lobbying to eliminate the state’s sales tax on food.
▪ Increase local food production. This involves making town more food friendly, including making vacant land available for production, using the city’s economic development process to make loans to and otherwise encourage small-scale farming, lightening zoning rules to assist neighborhood-level agricultural enterprises and revising government food-purchasing policies to favor buying from local growers.
The best thing the city and county can perform for local farmers is to bring “regulatory clarity” to the process, said Megan Greenway, co-owner of Orie’s Farm Fresh, an eight-acre farm just west 119th Street in west Wichita.
“That’s a really big one,” she said. “I would like to see some really clear urban agricultural policies.”
For example, Orie’s is a regenerative, chemical-free farm growing garlic and vegetables and producing a small amount of lamb. But it’s actually zoned residential and it’s not practical to go through the process of changing that to a more agrarian classification to do more, she said.
Still, she said there are opportunities well beyond the traditional farmers’ markets for selling crops. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Orie’s is only selling its products online, with delivery or gateside-pickup options for the customers.
“Consumers these days are all about contact-free and convenience,” she said. “We can apply the same rules as picking up a Walmart order in their parking lot. A small business can do their version of that as well, even if it is just a backyard vegetable gardener.
“And I think the urban agriculture policy would also open up some opportunities to where you hopefully wouldn’t get in trouble for putting a ‘zucchini for sale’ sign in your yard and trying to make a little money off of that.”
During the council meeting, City Manager Robert Layton expressed a particularly strong interest in the economic development potential of small-time farming.
Wichitans buy $1.6 billion worth of groceries a year. But only 0.7% of our vegetables., 0.4% of our eggs and 0.2% of our fruit are produced locally.
“If only 5% of that was produced here in Sedgwick County, that’s $80 million in economic development and economic growth or income,” he said.
It also dovetails with the City Hall’s long-discussed strategy of encouraging new business lines to reduce Wichita’s reliance on the dominant aviation industry, he said.
“We keep talking about diversifying our economy, this is something we can do here at home,” Layton said.
The plan will be introduced Monday at a special meeting of the Sedgwick County Commission. The commissioners and City Council members will then offer their suggestions and revisions to the program before it is brought back on future meetings for final adoption.