Community Gardening: a concrete step towards a better food system


Beautiful community garden in Idaho!

America as it exists now devotes massive swaths of the South and Midwest for production of both food and commodity crops, but localized community gardens would provide for a more stable, economically viable food system.  Rather than massive egg-producing factories (not hen-houses!) in North Carolina or corn farms in Iowa feeding the entire nation, a localized and regional method of food production would make more sense from an economic as well as a community standpoint.   By focusing on construction of community gardens, society can make great strides towards being more successful and sustainable.  By using a selection of readings as a springboard for exploration into the benefits of community gardening, the benefits that gardens bring to their neighborhoods become clear.

Much like the triad of nonprofits, gardeners, and governments that work together in tandem to reap the best benefits from community gardens, these readings play off of each other’s strengths and address each other’s weaknesses.  Nowtopia provides an outline of how community gardens are working in America today as a jumping off point, while The Transition Companion lays out how to create and propagate them to help create the sustainable metropolises seen in Register’s Ecocities.

Nowtopia demonstrates the success that community gardens have had in the United States throughout the 20th century and how they exist today.  In World War I, the establishment of intensive ‘victory gardens’ produced $520 million worth of food within two seasons, while in World War II, those same victory gardens provided 40% of America’s vegetable supply (Nowtopia, 83).   However, they began to decline in the post-war years, and in the 1970s funding for them was cut drastically.  Simultaneously, however, hippies and other counterculture activists were planting community gardens on vacant lots and popularizing a ‘back to the land’ movement’; the community gardens we see today are the heirs of victory gardens but the product of the hard work of counter-culture gardeners.

Today, community gardens are part of a movement that seeks to fight against corporatization of the food system.  Despite a lack of government funding, they have proved themselves to be exceptionally productive and sustainable endeavors.  However, by broadening the scope of the movement—making it about more than just counter-culture (although obviously its counter-culture roots remain an integral part of the movement), community gardens can become an everyday part of life for a broad scope of society.  The Detroit Agriculture Network puts it well when they emphasize that their community gardens aren’t just about food:  “The idea is to grow community, to grow people, and to grow food at the same time” (Nowtopia, 91).

By establishing even half as many community gardens as there once were victory gardens, the government can maximize food subsidy dollars both in terms of nutrition and in terms of production.  The American food system is fundamentally skewed by our current subsidy system:  unhealthy choices are the cheaper ones, as massive amounts of taxpayer dollars are funneled into the pockets of agribusiness and food processing corporations (Hamerschlag, “Subsidy Buffet”).

Federal and state governments could support peoples’ health and local economies by making community supported agriculture (CSA) shares an option for EBT and WIC participants.  Community supported agriculture shares involve an individual paying a farm a certain amount of money for a weekly ‘share,’ or box of vegetables grown on the farm or in the garden.  In this way, the farmer is guaranteed income at the beginning of the season when it’s most needed, and the consumer is guaranteed a large quantity of inexpensive produce.  This system would work excellently in community gardens, enabling gardeners to purchase needed resources and guaranteeing them a steady market while ensuring a flow of inexpensive, healthy food towards low income groups.

By creating locally-based food systems reliant on human labor and urban cultivation, there will be less reliance on unhealthy food in ‘food deserts’ such as inner cities and rural areas.  Residents will be enabled to either grow food in the gardens for cheap or benefit from low-cost community supported agriculture programs.

The Transition Companion, a guide to creating more sustainable communities from a grassroots perspective, provides a concrete guide for how to go about establishing these gardens on a larger scale, complete with examples of previous communities who have established them.  It proposes an alternate model of consumption based on a district-region-nation model, wherein goods and services are divided up by whether they should be produced on a local level (like crops and waste recycling) or on a larger scale (like electricity, building materials, and machinery) (The Transition Companion, 50).  It lays out concrete steps towards achieving Register’s “ecocity” model and discusses the successes and failures of previous projects, making future projects more feasible.  Building upon the foundations laid by modern urban community garden efforts seen in Nowtopia, it aims to give readers the tools to turn community gardening and other sustainable building efforts into a concrete movement with tangible goals for broad swaths of society.

Finally, Ecocities is the end goal—sustainable cities where human potential is maximized while deleterious effects on the environment are minimized.  Register argues that cities need to be rebuilt along ecological purposes.  Community gardens are the perfect first step towards ecologically focused cities:  they promote land stewardship, productive use of compact space, and a sustainable food system.  He argues that buildings need to be conceived not only as standalone structures, but as part of greater communities (Register, 33), which community gardens will help to foster.  By bringing residents of a particular area together, gardens create the dialogue necessary to communicate needs with developers and local government in order to ensure communally-focused building projects.

Register advocates redesigning cities and suburbs to maximize population density, and establishing neighborhood gardens are a solid step towards ensuring that people have a stake in their community and are willing to change it for the better.   Residents of a particular neighborhood or town aren’t going to be willing to make drastic changes overnight (or at all) if they don’t feel connected to a community that will benefit; it’s human nature to want to take care of one’s own.  Community gardens help ensure that ‘one’s own’ includes one’s neighbors—and thus they are an integral part not only of growing food, but of growing community.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Local Food and The Farm Bill: Small Investments, Big Returns.” EWG .Agriculture. Environmental Working Group, 20 Jan. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Murphy, J. Michael. “The Edible Schoolyard: Improving Behaviour and Academic Results.” .Scribd. Botanical Garden UC, Center for Ecoliteracy, Apr. 2003. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Hamerschlag, Kari. “Civil Eats.” Civil Eats. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2012.

Smith, Christopher M., and Hilda E. Kurtz. “Community Gardens And Politics Of Scale In New York City.” Geographical Review 93.2 (2003): 193-212.

Schmelzkopf, Karen. “Urban community gardens as contested space.” Geographical Review (1995): 364-381.

Baker, Lauren E. “Tending Cultural Landscapes And Food Citizenship In Toronto’s Community Gardens.” Geographical Review 94.3 (2004): 305-325.

Hopkins, Rob. The Transition Companion. N.p.: Chelsea Green, 2011. Print.

Carlsson, Chris. Nowtopia: How Pirate Programmers, Outlaw Bicyclists, and Vacant-lot Gardeners Are Inventing the Future Today. Oakland, CA: AK, 2008. Print.

Register, Richard. Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola, BC: New Society, 2006. Print.


Where do we go from here?

I’ve been posting a lot of these really political chapter outlines, talking about what the farm bill is and how it’s come to be.  But all of that information has amounted to one thing- a food system that isn’t serving our needs.  So, what do we do with this wealth of knowledge?  What can we learn from all of this?

By not taking an active role in how their food is legislated and produced, Americans are allowing business interests to dictate their diets in a way that’s more beneficial to the bottom line than to the waistline.  By allowing business interests to legislate our food system through lobbying and subsequent subsidization, we’re wreaking havoc on our environment, our economy, and our health.

The 2012 bill will eliminate direct payments for farmers (money paid regardless of whether or not crops are planted), replacing them with a subsidized crop insurance program.[1]  Many farmer groups have spoken out against direct payments, alleging that in times of austerity they do more harm than good by rewarding landowners per acre whether or not they produce crops.  Both the National Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau, two powerful agriculture organizations, have come out against direct farm subsidies, which amount to about $10 billion annually; moreover, direct payments disproportionately benefit large corporations, as they’re paid per acre.[2]  In other words direct payments give the most money to the largest landholders, who tend to be agribusiness corporations and banks.

The Mercatus Center, a George Mason University research center, argues that farm subsidies are cronyism that benefits large-scale producers.[3]  They’re fraught with questionable payments—massive companies (both from the US and overseas) receive a huge amount of agricultural payments.  Wells Fargo, for example, received $1.72b in crop insurance coverage from 2007 to 2011, ACE Ltd. of Switzerland received $1.5 billion, and QBE Insurance Group of Australia received $1 billion in direct payment subsidies.[4] Agricultural subsidies in America in 2012 are harmful to the environment, the economy, and our health.  By subsidizing big growers, largely ignoring conservation, and expecting agriculture to fit into a capitalist model through things like specialization and consolidation, we’re doing irreparable damage to our environment, our health, and our economy.  These subsidies have been feeding the coffers of banks and agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers and taxpayer dollars.  We need to start subsidizing better food choices and encouraging smarter food production if we want to effect positive change in this system.

[1] “US Agricultural Subsidies Equated to Cronyism,” The Epoch Times, August 22nd, 2012.  Accessed 8 October 2012.

[2] “Corn lobby outgrows US farm subsidies,” Al Jazeera, 31 August 2012.  Accessed 8 October 2012.

[3] The Epoch Times, August 22nd, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

2008: changes in the farm bill?

The 2008 farm bill saw a step towards more diversified crops and local food systems, but without removing money from existing commodity crop subsidies.  This creates the false sense that funding for diversified crops and other non-industrial food items is something that is an ‘extra’- a luxury for when we have the money to afford it.  This establishes the conventional system of commodity subsidies as the norm- which is patently untrue.  The agriculture that is seen in America today- with its fencerow-to-fencerow Roundup-Ready corn- is very much an invention of the last 50 years, and to consider it a necessity of modern life is a dangerous proposition indeed.

Rather, it’s a product of a system where industry has undue power over government, where farming is a dying profession and people’s food becomes something alien.  Who controls the food controls the power, and to allow ourselves to be disenfranchised from our food source- to allow our government to become the soapbox of agribusiness, and to voluntarily surrender our agricultural (and nutritional) agency- is a foolish choice indeed.

In 2008 though, changes are starting to be made- superfluous-seeming as they are.  The Eggplant Caucus has faded into obscurity but people are beginning to demand change in their food system, and the farm bill reflects that.


Chapter 5:  Farm Policy in the 21st Century

            The 2008 farm bill—or the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008—ostensibly focused more on conservation and diversified crops, but it didn’t do much in the way of reducing commodity subsidies.  Regulations were tightened in theory, but there remained a number of ways in which large farms, for example, could continue to receive double payments by filing for direct payments under different legal identities.[1]  On the whole though, the 2002 subsidy levels were largely maintained, despite record farm profits—proposed cuts were only $40 million per year, when direct payments amounted to $5.2 billion per year.[2]

Small steps were made away from the massive-scale, industrial food system as Butz and Hardin imagined it in the 1970s—money was allocated towards small-scale farmer’s market development, agricultural policy was changed to allow for more access to fruits and vegetables grown for local consumption, and a pilot program that would ‘untie’ US food aid (i.e., using aid money to buy food within the country receiving aid rather than shipping pre-packaged and processed US grain abroad) was slightly expanded.  However these efforts remained chronically underfunded, especially when compared with commodity subsidies.[3]

The amount of money that goes into lobbying for the farm bill–$173.5 million for the 2008 bill alone, more than the amount of money spent lobbying for Obamacare[4] –attests to its power.  Every day that the 110th Congress was in session (in 2007 and 2008), an average of $539,000 was spent on lobbying for issues covered in the farm bill.  Despite growing calls from an increasingly health-conscious public, Congresspeople were still inclined to vote with their wallets.

[1] “Overview of the 2008 Farm Bill.”  The Center for Rural Affairs, May 2008.  Accessed 14 October 2012.

[2] “Tentative Deal Reached in Congress on Farm Bill.”  The New York Times.  April 26, 2008.  Accessed 14 October 2012.

[3] “Success in the 2008 Farm Bill:  A New Direction for Farm and Food Policy.”  The American Farmland Trust, 2008.  Brochure.

[4] “Farm bill tops health care law in lobbying dollars,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 17,  2012.  Accessed 10 October 2012.

Food security = national security?

In examining the 2002 farm bill, you really get an interesting perspective on how American agriculture legislation has changed since FDR- whereas the AAA was trying to tamp down on overproduction, Earl Butz’s legacy is one of commodity surpluses and fencerow-to-fencerow grain designed to ensure overproduction for profit.  In the wake of 9/11, food security (via subsidies) was seen as a matter of national security (as indeed it still is today- Mitt Romney, as well as politicians from across the political spectrum, have called crop subsidies “a national-security issue”), and the federal government practically poured money into commodity subsidies.  Interesting that so many people equate food security with increased subsidies- what about EBT and WIC?  What about ensuring a safe supply of good food instead of ensuring a steady supply of income for big business?

However, 2002 is also the first time that representatives from outside the traditional “farm states” of the Midwest and the South asserted their voices in the modern farm bill:  the Eggplant caucus, named after a popular vegetable grown in New Jersey, was a coalition of senators from around the country (including Vermont’s own Pat Leahy!) who argued for more support of diversified crops and small farmers.  The bulk of the money, however, still goes to commodity crops.

Chapter 4:  Subsidies, Subsidies, Subsidies!

Thirty years later, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 directed $16.5 billion towards agricultural subsidies in the wake of 9/11.  Although Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman opposed the bill, saying that the money would be better spent on conservation instead of commodity subsidies, an amendment to shift $19 billion to conservation efforts failed. However, the Eggplant Caucus—a coalition of senators advocating specialty crop subsidies from states with less powerful farm interests—added $21.3 billion in conservation money to the bill.

After unsuccessful attempts in the late 90s to dismantle farm subsidy programs through legislation like the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act (which would have gradually dismantled most agricultural subsidies), the 2002 bill reintroduced massive amounts of subsidies–$2.8 billion to feed grains alone.[1]  Political players from Bush’s Agriculture Secretary to members of Congress from both parties and both houses spoke out against the new subsidies, arguing that they would wreak havoc by encouraging overproduction, but the subsidies were passed nonetheless.

The subsidies enacted by the 2002 bill would run afoul of the WTO (which argued that they were a non-tariff trade barrier) as well as a variety of organizations from all corners of the domestic political spectrum (the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Responsible Politics, the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies) that argued that the subsidization of domestic grains was harmful to farmers as well as the economy.  However the attention and deep pockets of a number of special interest lobbies, from corn to sugar beets to peanuts, ensured that subsidies were left in place.

The “revolving door” seen previously with Butz and Hardin can be seen here too, most notably in a former top-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Charles Stenholm (D-TX), became a lobbyist soon after his reelection defeat in 2004.  The influence of agricultural lobbies was everywhere to be seen, but the biggest beneficiaries were the leaders of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees:  Representative Bonilla (R-TX) raised $300,000 in donations from the agricultural sector, while Senator Chamliss (R-GA) collected $287,000 in donations.[2]  Opponents of industrial agribusiness are simply outmoneyed:  to skip forward several years in an example that is nonetheless still applicable to the 2002 bill, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group advocating for healthier (non-commodity crop) food subsidies, spent about $70,000 in lobbying in 2011, which is roughly what opponents of stricter guidelines spend every 13 hours, according to a Reuters analysis.[3]

Money talks, and with such persuasive manners it’s no wonder that voices warier of commodity subsidies were drowned out in the 2002 bill.

[1] FY2006 Budget Summary and Annual Performance, United States Department of Agriculture, 31.

[2] “Farm Lobby’s Power Has Deep Roots.”  Chicago Tribune, June 4th 2006.  Accessed 15 October 2012.

[3] “This Is Why You’re Fat:  The 2012 Farm Bill and the Real Obesity Lobby.” Huffington Post, May 16, 2012.  Accessed 8 October 2012.

from farms to businesses: the 70s

The 1970s is where the real, tangible foundations of today’s food system can be seen- consolidation of farms, concentration on profit rather than subsistence, and the increased voice of industry in politics.  Earl Butz, Nixon’s colorful agriculture secretary (who, interestingly, was one of the first politicians dismissed as a result of political incorrectness in the press- look it up), encouraged agriculture to become a profit-driven enterprise through increased planting of commodity crops.  It didn’t hurt that that surplus of grain could be sold to the USSR- he who controls the food controls the power, after all.

Chapter 3:  The 70s, and Earl Butz’s “historic turning point”

In the wake of the boom years of American agriculture in the mid-70s, farm policy became definitively more market- than subsistence-focused.  Rather than attempting to ensure sufficient food stores while preventing the overproduction that had doomed American farmers in the past, increasingly global commodity markets enabled legislators to focus on making money off of surplus crops.  A steady rise of exports throughout the 60s took care of surplus grain, and Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture wanted to ensure that that would continue.  The 1973 Agriculture and Consume Protection Act was preceded by a doubling in grain exports between 1972 and 73 as a result of the Soviet grain sale of 1972, and Nixon’s administration emphasized a market-focused agriculture policy.

Nixon’s first agriculture secretary, Clifford Hardin, encouraged this market focus through further expansion of exports, a reduction of government payouts, and allowing for more flexibility in acreage conservation.  The government also worked to scale back payments to farmers, which had peaked at $3.8 billion in 1969.[1]  The 1973 Farm Bill was called “an historical turning point in the philosophy of farm programs in the Unted States” by Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz.  And indeed, the 1973 bill was geared towards producing large amounts of surplus for export.

The mid-70s were a prosperous time for farmers, but exports couldn’t ensure success forever.  Producing surplus for sale on global markets exposed US farmers to volatile fluctuations in the global commodities market, and the need for ever larger farms to supply this grain required the consolidation and commodification of farms and US agriculture.  Nonetheless, the early success of Butz’s go-big or go-home mentality played a crucial role in cementing big farms as the mainstay of American agricultural policy.

Politics and industry become increasingly intertwined in the 1970s, especially in the realm of farm policy.  Nixon’s first Secretary of Agriculture, Hardin, switched places with his second Secretary of Agriculture in 1971, Butz—they quite literally traded jobs as Butz left his post at Ralston Purina to become the Agriculture Secretary while Hardin left his post as Agriculture Secretary to work for Ralston Purina.[2]  New constituencies— namely, large food processing companies— in the 1970s began to demand a say in farm policy, and the government, industry’s once and future leaders, accommodated them.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Marion Nestle, Food Politics:  How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2002, revised 2007), 100.