Before You Go - February 2010
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Before You Go…

The Power of Community Gardening

By Emily Tipping

After the recent catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, food security has been in the news as agencies try to get help where it is needed. But it doesn't take a catastrophe to leave plates and bellies empty. Food insecurity is not limited to Third World countries and disaster-stricken nations. It visits our own communities daily, where, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an estimated 49.1 million people, including 16.7 million children, lived in households that experienced hunger multiple times in 2008. At the same time, an Institute of Medicine report from 2009 shows school-age children are not eating the recommended fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products needed to build strong bodies.

There is no single solution to such a wide-ranging problem, but Growing Power, a national nonprofit organization and land trust, has shed a little light on some smart methods for bringing a stable food system to a community. And in the city of Chicago, community gardens found in the parks are providing a place for communities to gather for more than recreation.

Growing Power began in 1993 when farmer Will Allen designed a program to employ teens to grow food for their community. And what began on the north side of Milwaukee has grown into an international commitment to sustainable food systems. The organization trains everyone from young and old community members to farmers and urban planners on a wide range of topics to help them establish a stable community food system in their own areas.

What is a community food system? "This is the way people learn to grow, process and distribute local food—everything from growing your own vegetables and fruits to being able to access the conventional streams of how food gets into communities," said Erika Allen, Chicago projects manager for Growing Power.

The ultimate goal is to provide high-quality, safe, healthy and affordable food for all residents in the community. The Community Food Center, Allen said, is similar to your typical recreational community center, but instead of gathering for fun, fitness and sporting programs, the community food center acts "as a supportive nucleus for the community to come together and do positive things around food."

It's not a one-size-fits-all program, either. Growing Power offers training at its sites in Milwaukee and Merton, Wis., Chicago and at satellite training sites in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Mississippi to a multigenerational, multiethnic audience. "People from all over the world work for us and come to our training," Allen said. "They might go to Milwaukee to walk through the system and study how we're operating. They might come for training or technical assistance, and we can help them implement a similar or even a very different food system. The success of these projects is contingent on the local resources, space available, community needs and culture. We work hard to provide as many options as we can. So people come and see how it looks, and they can take it back and figure out what will work for them, depending on their local resources and local expertise."

Allen started the Chicago-based project to help people become more self-sufficient and self-reliant. And with support from the Chicago Park District and Fourth Presbyterian Church, three site-based projects are now in place across the city: the Chicago Avenue Community Garden at Cabrini-Green, established in cooperation with Fourth Presbyterian Church; the Grant Park "Art on the Farm" Urban Agriculture Potager, located near Buckingham Fountain, one of Chicago's prominent tourist spots; and the Jackson Park Urban Farm and Community Allotment Garden.

The Jackson Park project, a half-acre site used by local gardeners and acting as a model urban farm, was recently awarded a grant through Rodale Inc., publishers of Organic Gardening magazine. As a result, Allen said, "we got a beautiful pergola, a water cistern system and fruit trees, seeds and plants. It's a tremendous resource for that program and for the public." She added that 30 families grew food in the Jackson Park garden last year, and more will be brought in this year.

If you're ready to start your own community garden—with all the benefits it brings—the very first thing you need to consider, Allen said is land.

"Land is really important," she added. "Whether the form of food production is more leisurely, like a form of gardening, or it has an economic component, meaning they're relying on it for sustenance or to make money, the land has to be secure because of the time it takes to develop the soil structure and the ecological system."

After that, Allen said it's critical to get community members and neighbors involved. And finally, she said, "find mentors and support to teach you what you need to know. And most importantly, have fun!"

Learn more about Growing Power and its other programs at

Got a positive story to tell? A success to talk about? We'd love to hear from you! E-mail and let us know how you're making a difference.