Feature Article - September 2022
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Let It Grow

The Community Garden vs. Food Insecurity

By Dave Ramont

"The 'produce aisle on wheels' works toward closing the food access gap by bringing produce to schools, community centers, churches and health clinics—places that folks already frequent—to make good food accessible in Black and Brown neighborhoods that have been historically divested," explained Simms.

Customers board the bus and shop for produce and staples, which are affordably priced while also providing a fair return for farmers and suppliers. During the pandemic, everyone who boarded the bus was given $10 off their produce and LINK dollars were matched up to $25. UGC also provided more than 5,000 produce boxes and nearly 14,000 hot meals made with farm produce to community partner organizations to help alleviate hunger.

City Slicker Farms turned a vacant brownfield site into a functioning farm and educational site, the 1.4-acre West Oakland Farm Park. There's an outdoor classroom, nutrition demo zone, an orchard, a playground with edible plantings, a chicken coop and apiary. The land for the Farm Park was acquired from a proposition that CSF applied for, according to Benudiz, so the nonprofit owns the land. The Alameda County Department of Public Health supplied a grant that helps with staffing costs, but otherwise they rely mostly on individual donations, which are critical to maintaining their mission.

Farm Park also features 32 community garden plots, tended by community members who've been accepted into the program and provided with seeds and starters, according to Benudiz. "The other half of the Farm Park is dedicated to our food-producing farm, maintained by our farm manager. All the produce we grow there is harvested for our free Town Fridge and pantry, which is located directly outside the Farm Park. It's open to the community 24/7 and is used heavily by houseless folks and low-income families from the area."

Benudiz said they practice sustainable and regenerative agriculture and implement climate-resilient infrastructure, understanding that climate change is drastically affecting food systems. "Some of our key practices include rainwater harvesting systems; large scale composting; chicken rearing to help break down garden waste and till the soil; using all-organic materials and never using pesticides or synthetic fertilizers; appropriate crop rotation to maintain soil health; sheet mulching for water retention; water-wise drip irrigation; creating intentional pollinator habitat; and using recycled and reused building materials, to name a few."

CSF also offers workshops and training programs, and Benudiz said their cooking classes—focused around using homegrown ingredients—are very popular. She also described working with a local high school to offer three internships to youth who want to study urban agriculture. "We work with them once a week to show them valuable gardening skills and have discussions about food justice. We also host field trips and tours with schools and other groups to teach them about our work."

In 1970, the Council on the Environment of New York City was born, which evolved into today's GrowNYC, with a mission to "improve New York City's quality of life through environmental programs that transform communities."

One program area involves food access and agriculture, with a goal of ensuring that all New Yorkers have access to fresh, healthy food through a network of Greenmarket farmers markets, farm stands, Youthmarkets and Fresh Food Box pickup sites. GrowNYC has also built more than 150 gardens, including community gardens in public housing developments, churches, daycares and senior centers.

"In urban areas, we don't always have the opportunity to connect with the natural world in a meaningful way. Gardens grow so much more than plants—they grow community, environmental stewards, a connection to nature, healthy eating habits and empathy," said Kristin Fields, director of GrowNYC School Gardens, the citywide school gardens initiative in partnership with GrowNYC, the Departments of Education's Office of School Food and GreenThumb, the community gardens branch of NYC Parks.

For the past 10 years, the School Gardens program has offered mini-grants where schools could apply for $500 to $2,000 in funding to start or sustain learning gardens, according to Fields. This year, the Department of Education rolled out a formalized Outdoor Learning initiative and invested more than $1.5 million in funding for schools to start or expand their learning spaces, which helps to deliver workshops, resources, grants and technical assistance to schools. "GreenThumb has contributed essential garden materials like tools, soil, lumber, mulch and more. We're lucky to have fantastic partners," said Fields.

"Assembling a garden-building team is a great first step in developing a garden committee who will sustainably steward the space for years," continued Fields, who said they provide guidance with garden design and source materials. And since building a garden on school grounds isn't always possible, they often connect schools to local community gardens to share spaces. "One or two raised beds in a shared community garden is a terrific way to introduce students to gardening without taking on the full responsibility of stewarding a space, and a great way to introduce school families to gardening."

So do the students get to bring produce home, or share with the community? "Yes! During the first few months of the pandemic, when food banks and pantries were experiencing shortages, our school gardeners jumped fences when school was closed in order to access their gardens and grow for their communities," said Fields, who explained that some students had established community fridges or pantries beforehand, or were donating to local Community Based Organizations. Others sent produce home with families. "Since the pandemic, we've been seeing more schools interested in growing food to address food insecurity in their communities."

Who tends the gardens during summer vacation? This falls to students who wish to carry on, or to local families or the school itself if they remain open in summer. Otherwise, growing things like sweet potatoes is encouraged, since they need little oversight and take 90 days to mature, so a June planting can yield a fall harvest. "One school harvested 90 pounds of sweet potatoes from their rooftop garden after summer break, which is a great way to start the new school year," said Fields.

School Gardens also provides a monthly newsletter, an online portal of school gardening resources and instructional videos and 40-plus educational workshops each year open to teachers, administrators, parents and students. During the pandemic, they went virtual. "One of our favorites was the 'Grow a Garden From Food Scraps' workshop, which encouraged participants to regrow fruits and veggies from seeds, cuttings, dried beans—really anything they might have had in their fridge or pantry," said Fields.