A Working Group to Address the Challenge of Food Deserts Through Urban Agriculture

Progress report for LS19-318

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $50,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Savannah State University
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Philip Omunga
Savannah State University
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Project Information


A significant and growing area of world hunger is the availability/affordability of healthy food for urban and rural landless poor. In Savannah, the need is most pressing in areas described as urban food deserts (UFDs), which are lacking nearby grocery stores and often personal transportation. This obstacle creates scenarios of poor nutrition, food insecurity, and poor health outcomes. To achieve healthier, more equitable, and vibrant communities, it is essential to create opportunities for all residents to have practical access to healthy food. Simultaneously, our cities face challenges associated with management of vacant land and environmental degradation associated with nutrient-containing waste. We propose an educational project to develop an agricultural system using urban aquaponics (synergistic fish and hydroponic vegetable farming) on city-owned, vacant land in a public-private partnership to address these challenges synergistically. Existing aquaponic farmers, academics, city leaders, and others have been identified for a seminar series to create a path forward for this project while educating and recruiting interested new farmers. Also, an elementary school in a target UFD area will host a demonstration system with accompanying curriculum.

Reduced access to health food is a problem created by urbanization. As cities have grown larger and denser, the practical travel time to food-growing areas has increased, eliminating the opportunity for residents to grow or obtain food directly. While industrial agricultural and retail grocers have solved this problem for most, certain areas in urban and rural areas have proven unprofitable for grocers and remain underserved. The fundamental solution is to shorten the distance to healthy, affordable food. While food pantry and food subsidy models have successfully met this need, they also require additional resource above that already invested.

The proposed approach promises to drastically reduce obstructive costs including land, transportation, retail, feed, and energy, and provide a more sustainable approach to address UFDs. This approach promises to move beyond primarily education/recreational use of “community garden” space to truly fill a food gap. Land and transportation costs are reduced by using vacant, city-owned urban land and feed costs are reduced by recovering nutrient-rich urban wastes that are currently creating environmental problems.

Gadsden Elementary, the demonstration/education site and a Title One School of Distinction is located in an identified UFD and within an area selected by the city for the EPA CUPP program. As an emerging area of agriculture, there are regulatory, knowledge and acceptance hurdles to overcome before effective implementation. The concept presented must be refined and tested against expertise in various areas and proven economically viable. Community interest surveys must be conducted before investments are made. This educational step is essential to network critical entities and educate the public, existing and potential growers, administrators, and other stakeholders to the potential that this synergistic method has for increasing the sustainability of our urban and nearby rural communities.

Project Objectives:
  • Procure data on preferences and demand for locally source produce and fish while fostering an environment in which key partnerships can be developed for production and distribution.
  • Create opportunities for networking, training and exchange between existing producers and scientists centered around modern aquaponics, urban waste management, composting and vermiculture, urban food deserts, and business management with a legacy for continued partnership.
  • Design and build a demonstration system in an elementary school in a Savannah UFD area to be used as an education and training tool with and by all invitees/participants/stakeholders, including UFD residents.
  • Lay groundwork for a future grower-centered SARE research proposal to deploy and cultivate these concepts.


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Materials and methods:

This project aims to identify community needs by surveying the residents of the urban food deserts (UFDs) and potential growers. For instance, growers may have concerns about safe working environments and security for their equipment, while city managers have concerns about public perceptions on use of waste streams. Survey instruments for the UFD residents and potential growers have been designed, approved by IRB (July 12, 2019) and scheduled for implementation (April-June, 2020) by cooperating farmers interacting with Savannah State University (SSU) graduate and undergraduate students under limited guidance from faculty. The two farmer-student teams is intended to add a service-learning element to the project. Team 1 is focused on the surveys and seminar, while Team 2 is focused on the demonstration system design/build, and a marketing strategy. Among the items addressed by the survey questions are who will buy the produce, where are the consumers located, what are the desired foods, how much they are willing/able to pay, and scale of demand. In surveying potential growers, we seek to identify obstacles for production and profitability. 

Research results and discussion:

The results from the surveys are expected to set the framework and provide a key resource for the seminar series, which will also represent a summary of the current state of knowledge for relevant topics on the concept of sustainable urban agriculture and aquaponic systems. The information will be utilized in the demonstration system design/build and educational components of the project.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

The seminar series is divided into two parts, as follows:

Fall 2020

a. Modern Aquaponics Production

b. The Urban Agricultural Movement

c. Aquaponics and Urban Food Deserts

Spring 2021

a. The Urban Farm Manager

b. Urban Land Availability, Access, and Security

c. Demonstration System and Curriculum Day

The themed modules are aligned with the major deliverables for the project: Survey analysis, production conceptualization, economic feasibility, regulatory action items, needed research areas, and grower implementation plan. Each module includes an educational presentation from participating farmers, SSU faculty, or invited speakers, summarizing peer-reviewed literature and current best practices on topics in that module followed by discussions and networking on key plan elements. Each seminar participant will be provided with a “producer pak” including materials from the presentation, and a complimentary book on the subject of that day's seminar. The cooperating farmer-student teams will also design a marketing plan for the program and development of a promotional YouTube video. Regarding invitees, we have already identified some and are pursuing collaboration with additional key stakeholders. These include currently active growers with operations in or near Savannah (Billy's Botanicals, Savannah Hydroponics and Organics, and Savannah Urban Gardening Alliance/SUGA), a representative from the Savannah Office of Sustainability, a representative of SARC Aquaculture program at the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University, a representative from the hotel or restaurant industry with interest in local produce (contacts are available through Savannah Hydroponics and Organics; and “912 Truck” mobile food pantry service), Center for New Urbanism, Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, UGA Cooperative Extension Service, Metropolitan Planning Commission and our partners at Gadsden Elementary in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS).

The seminar series also plans to inventory available resources including potential locations for pilot sites on city land, legal issues or zoning changes that need to be made, and technical resources available from SARC. Savannah State University (SSU) has engaged urban management, environmental science, and a unique opportunity to network underserved portions of the Savannah community and underrepresented populations in STEM education. Our partners at Gadsden Elementary in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) are planning to upgrade their existing infrastructure to create active space for their teachers, working with our Education expert, Dr. Victoria Young, to identify science standards that can be addressed through the active learning platform/model that this project will provide. Dr. Young has years of experience at SSU implementing sustainability-themed instruction for Chatham County K-12. SCCPSS has already pledged their support and agreed to fund the demonstration system. Additionally, we intend to pursue collaboration efforts with the SARC Aquaculture program at the Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern University as a regionally relevant technical resource for the future research and implementation phases of the project.

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

2 Farmers
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:


Learning Outcomes

Key changes:
  • Forthcoming

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:




Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.