Campus Life

Urban gardens can improve economic, environmental and personal health

University Park, Pa. — Do you ever look at the labels on your groceries to see where they come from? Notice how many items come from overseas? Wonder how much time, money and energy it takes to get them onto the shelf in your local grocery store?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone. In this age of highly publicized food contaminations, energy anxieties, and global warming, concerns about where and how our groceries are produced and distributed are emerging worldwide. “The Urban Side of Green” is a series of online videos produced by Penn State Outreach that discuss the benefits of greening up city landscapes. Part one, featuring an interview with Penn State’s Dorothy Blair, can be found at

Blair, an assistant professor of nutrition, is a longtime advocate of eating locally — a lifestyle sometimes described as “localvore.” Blair has been studying and teaching about global food production system for 30 years. While serving in the Peace Corps early in her career, she said she saw firsthand how the global food production system perpetuated poverty, funneling money away from the people producing food, and into the coffers of distant conglomerates. Later, through her academic research, she was able to pinpoint “fatal flaws” that would render that system ecologically unsustainable.

In contrast, “if you’re producing food in a urban area, it’s very diversified — many producers on tiny plots,” Blair pointed out. “It’s very energy-efficient, and you have people eating food that is good for them—extremely fresh—with the kind of nutrients they might find difficult to obtain because of their low budget. And you have people locally making money.”

"People do not realize what an amazing amount of food comes out of urban areas,” explained Blair. As a pioneer in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement in Central Pennsylvania in the late 80s, Blair personally experienced how productive a small plot can be. “On three acres of cultivated land, we were able to feed 30 families,” she said.

Blair sees three main benefits to city farms and gardens:

• Personal health — "Eating local is phenomenal for you health,” Blair said. Recent studies suggest that produce loses nutritive value very quickly after being picked. When it’s refrigerated and shipped across the world, Blair explained, “You can end up with vegetables on the grocery shelf that have almost no vitamin C or other vunerable vitamins left." And working in and around gardens "improves mental and emotional well being too," said Blair, who continues to study gardening’s effect on school children.

• Economic health — “The people who make the money in global food production are distant and often in a conglomerate, and it doesn’t get down to the small person,” said Blair. In urban food production, the money changing hands remains local, and people on low budgets gain access to otherwise expensive nutritious food.

• Environmental health — “We spend so much energy on transporting food" said Blair. And large-scale farming, with its heavy reliance on petroleum, is taking a major toll environmentally. "Twenty percent of the greenhouse gases we produce in the United States are due to our food system and the way it is set up,” said Blair. But in the local urban model, energy expenditure — in terms of both growing and transport to market — is vastly reduced, as is greenhouse gas production. 

To learn more about Blair’s research, visit

To view the interview with Blair featured in Part 1 of  “The Urban Side of Green,” visit

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Penn State Outreach the largest unified outreach organization in American higher education. Penn State Outreach serves more than 5 million people each year, delivering more than 2,000 programs to people in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, all 50 states and 80 countries worldwide.


Last Updated March 19, 2009