community gardens part 4: the smart economic choice

Working hard at the Intervale Center!

Working hard at the Intervale!

In terms of environmental efforts, community gardens foster a local food system that’s beneficial for both the wallets and the environment of their communities.  Gardens are an environmentally sound mode of food production:  large amounts of food can be grown in small areas, and the food doesn’t need to travel as far.  In addition to reducing fossil fuel usage (it takes a lot less gas to transport a tomato down the street than to transport a tomato from Florida), it also has a much lesser environmental impact than large, industrial-style monoculture farms.  Instead of depleting the soil year after year by planting the same crop, community gardens are diversified and can be shifted and rotated to the needs of the neighborhood—one is unlikely to see a community garden planted fencerow to fencerow with “Roundup Ready Corn” for twenty years straight.

Local food production also encourages local small business: large grocery chains find it hard to integrate produce from local farms, meaning that small businesses are given a better chance of success because their products are unique.  A grocery store like Price Chopper (or even Whole Foods) is going to be much less adaptable to changing seasons and small producers; their supply chain necessarily demands large-scale and centralized production.  Community gardens provide an incubator stage for small producers—people interested in growing their own food can learn from seasoned veterans in a relatively low-stress environment before striking out on their own.  Access to agricultural knowledge is crucial to building a more sustainable food system, and community gardens provide a space for that knowledge to be transferred and gained.

Nonprofits like the Intervale Center in Burlington, Vermont provide a stepping stone between community gardens and small farmers by providing space for ‘incubator farms.’  There are community gardens throughout the area, but for those who are interested in turning their hobby into an occupation the Intervale Center lowers the barrier for entry by offering business planning, larger plots, and communal farm equipment.  Through their incubator program, over 40 small farms have started throughout the Champlain Valley, providing a not-insignificant amount of produce for the area.[1]  These programs go hand in hand with community garden programs, and prove that the establishment of community gardens is a solid step towards the establishment of a sustainable, local food system.

community gardens pt. 3: political empowerment

 

NYCCGC press conference, 2010

NYCCGC press conference, 2010

In terms of empowerment, gardens gave a voice to people that otherwise felt left out of the political process and gave residents the power to improve their neighborhoods.  In the 1970s, a number of vacant lots appeared in New York City as the city went bankrupt and investors (and white people) left for greener pastures.  The streets of many neighborhoods became seedy and unsafe, and the residents felt that they couldn’t depend upon the corrupt police force.  The establishment of gardens—again at first by counterculture groups like the Green Gorillas, but gradually percolating into the rest of the population—provided a rally point for many communities to improve their areas.  Spaces that would otherwise fall prey to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ became spaces for community engagement, discourse, and productivity.

The gardens replaced needle-strewn empty lots with productive spaces where people, especially women, felt safe spending time (Schmelzkopf, 273).  Residents of Losaida, an area now more commonly called Alphabet City, speak of replacing desolate parking lots with “places full of color, camaraderie, and safety” (ibid., 273).  The streets became safer and the neighborhoods more attractive to investors as gardens popped up on every corner.  Perversely, this became a problem in the 1990s as the land in the very neighborhoods that the gardens had helped to revitalize became too attractive to investors to stay as gardens.  However, this introduced many previously apolitical gardeners to grassroots activism.

Gardeners in New York found their political voice, participating collectively in the political process when Mayor Giuliani tried to auction off garden plots in the 1990s.  The nonprofits and gardeners that had lobbied for and worked the lands brilliantly managed their campaign in a fight with City Hall that saw a number (although not all) of the gardens preserved (Smith and Kurtz, 208).  A number of the gardeners were people of color who otherwise tended to feel marginalized by the state and local government, but through their work in the gardens were able to make a difference in the politics of the city while preserving the mainstays of their communities.

Community gardens pt. 2: integrating newcomers

Community gardens that have been established in low-income and at-risk populations have provided a source of not only food but of community building, political empowerment, and business acumen.  Community gardens for immigrant populations have been successfully established in Toronto, which has the highest proportion of immigrants of any city in the world (Baker, 307).  Gardens have provided for them social and recreational spaces, cheap good food, community education, and an opportunity for supplemental income.

It’s clear that community gardens have been enormous advantages for low-income communities, and establishing them across economic classes and social groups (for example, establishing school gardens) will only reap more benefits for everyone involved.  School gardens have been shown to have a positive effect not only on children’s quality of food in schools, but on nutrition education, compassion for living things, academic achievement, and psychosocial adjustment as compared to control schools where no gardens were planted or maintained (Murphy, 6).

By increasing the number of community gardens, a community regardless of its tax bracket can become more economically self-sufficient and reduce its dependence on large grocery chains (and, by extension, fossil fuels).  Nationwide food scares will have less of an impact on communities that don’t need to rely on an international food chain for their dinner; monthly produce scares will be a thing of the past.  Moreover, taking advantage of the knowledge base of marginalized populations who know how to farm sustainably (not only the immigrant populations cited in Toronto, but the rapidly dying out population of farmers born in North America) will create jobs that maximize peoples’ individual skills and potentials for the benefit of their communities.

Moreover, the jobs will be better paying than comparable conventional jobs in agriculture:  in terms of building a more localized food infrastructure, local farmers create more jobs than traditional markets—1.3 jobs/farmer versus 0.9 jobs/farmer—and their crops generate higher sales per acre–$590/acre for local food versus $304 for an industrial farm (Hamerschlag, Local Food and the Farm Bill).  Local food markets provide a critical outlet for new small businesses—beginning farmers account for 48% of local West Coast food producers.

Community gardens accomplish a range of goals:  in terms of community building, they facilitate integration of low-income and new immigrant communities into the broader community in addition to strengthening the broader community itself.  Gardens have the potential to be a supplementary source of income for those low-income populations:  Nowtopia cites an example of low-income gardeners who produced $22.8 million worth of produce on a $3.5 million budget  (Carlsson, 93).  This is a cost effective method of community improvement and development that harnesses natural processes for human benefit at little cost to sponsoring organizations and governments.

For many new immigrants, community garden plots enabled women to have an independent source of income that wasn’t dependent upon them leaving their children at home.  Women who had traditionally tended gardens in their home countries were given the opportunity to supplement their household income in a way that was culturally acceptable to them and their families in addition to connecting them with the broader North American community.

They didn’t need to find babysitters for younger children, as they would with a traditional job, but could rather pass on knowledge to their children and maximize household resources—younger children could weed or play in the safety of the gardens, while older children could be productive helpers.  The gardens help them acclimate to North America, easing culture shock as they are able to grow familiar produce that would be otherwise difficult to find.

Senior citizen gardens in Toronto provided elderly immigrants with a sense of ‘food citizenship’—a sense of belonging in Canada through their connection with the land.  Older immigrants who struggled not only with the language but with adapting to a new country so late in life found a community of like-minded individuals.  Moreover, they were able to use skills that they had developed in their home countries to better their lives in Canada by either enjoying familiar meals with hard-to-find produce or selling their goods for a profit.

Community gardens are beneficial for everyone- but their positive impact on immigrant communities is especially valuable.