Feature Article - September 2022
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Let It Grow

The Community Garden vs. Food Insecurity

By Dave Ramont

Most of us can take a short walk or drive to our local market for fresh food, or even walk into our garden to harvest a ripe tomato for salsa or some greens for a salad. But many Americans live in so-called food deserts, not only lacking the space or means to grow their own produce, but possibly living miles from the nearest grocery store, instead relying on gas stations or liquor stores for food access. And without healthy food options, these communities—which are often situated in underserved neighborhoods—commonly have much higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer than more affluent neighborhoods. Fortunately, more organizations and cities are addressing this issue with community gardens and urban farms.

Founded in 2001, City Slicker Farms (CSF) in Oakland, Calif., has a mission "to increase wellness and build community through equitable access to healthy food, thriving gardens and urban green space."

"Our community's health and well-being is suffering because of an absence of nutritious food, coupled with pollution, poverty and a lack of connection with nature in an industrial landscape, the outcome of racist policies and systems," said Aliya Benudiz, marketing and communications coordinator at CSF. She pointed out that due to "grocery store redlining," West Oakland has more liquor stores per corner than most places. "Currently there's only one fresh food grocery store for over 45,000 people. But even then, a lot of folks can't afford fresh produce. Overall, this leads to systemic health problems that disproportionately affect communities of color.

"Urban farming and teaching people to grow healthy produce is effectively a public health intervention," Benudiz continued. "Not only that, but it offers a space to reconnect with nature and enjoy green space, which has been shown to positively impact mental health and well-being. Our current food systems are failing our communities, so it's now up to the people to take matters into their own hands."

CSF's founder Willow Rosenthal started out building gardens on unused plots of land and in neighbors' back yards, which eventually became so productive they started donating the extra produce. This sparked a backyard garden revolution in West Oakland, but Benudiz pointed out that the cost-of-entry to gardening isn't cheap, considering soil, raised bed supplies, tools, plant starts and seeds. That's where CSF comes in, to date building more than 400 gardens through their Backyard Gardens Program. "We cater to low-income families, community establishments like elderly homes, affordable housing units, schools and churches, and offer everything they need to start a productive garden for free."

And while building a garden is a first step, Benudiz said the real impact comes from helping gardeners sustain it long-term. "We're dedicated to the success of our gardeners, and that means continually offering support, supplies and plants to keep them going." She explained that participants can sign up for Mentor Visits by a backyard garden manager. "They come with free compost to help amend the soil, new seasonally appropriate starters and any tools the gardener requests." They also troubleshoot problems and teach best practices for addressing things like pest management and soil health.

Established in 2017, Urban Growers Collective (UGC) is a black- and women-led nonprofit organization in Chicago aiming to "address the inequities and structural racism that exist in the food system and in communities of color." Laurell Sims, co-founder and CEO of UGC, believes that health outcomes shouldn't be dependent on zip codes. "Because of divestment in Black and Brown communities, the health disparity gap has widened. The legacy of racial and economic segregation, lack of grocery stores and green space, underfunded education and the lack of living-wage jobs conspires to harm. Social determinants of health include amenities like parks, grocery stores, decent schools, transportation, decent housing and living wage jobs. We call it food apartheid because these are laws and policies that inflict harm and should be rectified."

Community gardens are one initiative of UGC, and Sims said that last year they had more than 50 families participating at their two community garden locations. Plots are $25, though LINK recipients and those demonstrating financial need receive a free plot. "To help gardeners, we provide free and discounted workshops, facilitate lunch-and-learns, and have farming staff on hand to help offer guidance to growers. For those ready to take their garden to the next level, we offer an annual Growers Apprenticeship that teaches advanced growing, marketing and business development."

Simms pointed out that the pandemic demonstrated how vulnerable our food system and supply chain are to disruption. "With that in mind, it's incredibly important to build a local food system, and community gardens are part of developing the local food economy. Giving people access to land that's secure and safe empowers them to provide wholesome, culturally appropriate foods for their families. It's just good policy and should be encouraged by local governments."

UGC also operates eight urban farms on 11 acres, partnering with the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Housing Authority to utilize underused green space in their land portfolios. "As an exchange, we can utilize their land while providing engagement and services to the community," Simms said. Each farm utilizes organic growing methods, and in addition to fruits and vegetables, the farms produce culinary and medicinal herbs, edible flowers and ornamental plants for neighborhood beautification. They also raise goats, chickens and honeybees.

"At our urban farms, we try to layer food production with community engagement," said Simms. "(We) engage the community through educational workshops, job training for our 180-plus teen employees, farmstand produce distribution, tours, volunteer opportunities and special events. We try to make the community-based farm a hub of connection, while also making the land as productive as possible." Workshops and trainings have covered topics including urban agriculture, agribusiness development, mushroom growing, herbal medicine and beekeeping.

During the growing season, UGC hosts weekly stands at two of their farms and participates in other area farmers markets. They also offer a seasonal Collective Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription, with members receiving weekly shares of vegetables, fruits and herbs. And then there's the bus that's been converted into the Fresh Moves Mobile Market.