Nutritionists and other health professionals have long recognised deficiencies in diet, particularly amongst the poor. The issue of obesity has risen up the ladder of concern in many developed countries. One in four people in the USA are now classified as obese. In these developed countries diets generally contain excessive amounts of fat and sugar and insufficient vitamin and mineral-rich fresh fruit and vegetables or carbohydrate-rich staples such as bread and potatoes. The effects of this are widely acknowledged, and evident in the excessive rates of coronary heart disease (CHD), obesity, blood pressure and strokes. In response, the UK Government’s Health of the Nation report has set dietary targets to reduce the levels of all these problems. The reasons for unhealthy diets amongst the poor may have more to do with a lack of access to retailers selling a good range of affordable fresh produce, than simply to do with pure ignorance. However, food growing in cities can and does help improve people’s diets by providing them with access to fresh fruit and
vegetables, particularly to those on low incomes, as several cities in the UK now recognise (Howe,
2001) . Adherence to organic methods also means that food is usually guaranteed to be free from herbicides and pesticides, although justifiable fears may arise over contaminated land in some inner city locations.
Access to fresh locally grown fruit and vegetables means that people can see where, how and when crops are grown. This is likely to raise awareness about food production techniques and provide knowledge which facilitates a questioning of the advantages of non seasonal imported or processed food. The promotion of CPULs and urban agriculture, in conjunction with healthy eating campaigns, is one way by which diets may be shifted away from excessive fat and sugar consumption in developed countries and one way by which access to food in general is improved in countries suffering from economic hardship.
In addition to diet, food growing can provide a useful outlet for increasing the amount of gentle, regular exercise that health professionals argue is necessary to stave off health problems like obesity and CHD.
Finally, involvement in gardening or horticulture has also long been recognised for its powers in treating the mentally ill, and recently the Mental Health Foundation in the UK has formally recognised this in their report ‘Strategies for Living’ (Mental Health Foundation, 2000). A recent study undertaken by the University of Florida (Spence, 1999) is particularly interesting in relation to productive, and continuous landscape which include pedestrian and cycle routes. Its findings suggest that ‘just walking around a botanical garden reduces stress levels’. The implication of this is that gardeners and people coming into contact with urban agriculture sites (the public) will all benefit from these health benefits. Financial benefits resulting from this reduced stress can contribute to reductions in public health costs.
As one of the report’s authors Professor Jennifer Bradley states,
the implications for health and well-being are obvious. And for public gardens and the horticultural industry, the implications are good, too. Funding for public gardens is getting harder and harder to come by, so this kind of information gives botanical gardens and arboreta a way to market themselves and more ammunition in seeking funding.