Yesterday's post drew more than the usual number of comments. Rather than respond to each individually, I'm going to follow some of the threads that emerged.
I am encouraged by the number of people who support the idea of treating community gardens more like collective farms. As expected, there are a number of gardeners out there who cling to the notion that the plots in community gardens should belong to individuals. They like the idea of doing whatever they want with their individual plots, to work a lot or a little, to plant what they please. To my mind, the difference is not so great as one might think. It's simply a matter of shifting attitude from what is "mine" to what is "ours."
But the bottom-line question is this: Will the District of Columbia in fact embrace the idea of growing local food, or are we going to sit here like a potted plant and wait for the next shoe to drop? My personal view is, things are going to grow more difficult in the future, not easier. I can easily see a time when urban land--land suitable for growing food--will simply be too precious to give over to the leisure pursuit of puttering around a private garden plot. Growing food locally for people to eat will be serious business, not just something that certain people of means get to enjoy on Sunday mornings at the Dupont Circle farmers market.
This is not a new idea and it does not belong to me. Some 20 years ago, the D.C. Council passed a law that called on the mayor to conduct an inventory of all the vacant land in the city and start turning it over to food producing gardens. The legislation also called for involving the city's youth in these gardens to teach them marketable skills. Apparently, the mayor at that time and mayors since then have found it convenient to ignore that law. We hear a lot about the city making land available for developers, for instance, but we hear very little about the city making land available for food gardening. Part of the problem may just be that we have not done enough to convince the public--or our public officials--that gardening is more than picking flowers, that gardening should be taken seriously.
The fact is that for too many thousands of D.C. residents fresh fruit and vegetables are either not readily available or not affordable. Children in these families go to school on a breakfast of flavored high-fructose corn syrup and potato chips from the corner convenience store. Hard as it may be to believe, hunger is not a stranger to the District of Columbia. Consider these facts:
* The poverty rate for school children ages 5 - 17 in the District of Columbia is 51.3 percent compared with 34.5 percent nationally, the highest in the nation. This translates into 56,000 children at risk of hunger in Washington, D.C., or 1 in 2 children.
* More than 57,000 D.C. residents live in extreme poverty. For a family of four, that means they live on less than $29 a day for all their expenses – including food, rent, and transportation.
* 12.5 percent of households in the District of Columbia struggled with hunger from 2004-06. That’s an increase from previous years. From 2001 – 2003, just 9 percent were considered to be food insecure.
* 109,000 D.C. residents are eligible to participate in the Food Stamp Program each month, however only two-thirds actually receive food stamps, and of those who do, 74 percent report that their food stamps do not last the entire month.
* The average monthly Food Stamp Program benefit is $91.83.
* Food access issues continue to challenge D.C. residents. Residents of Wards 2 and 3 have three times more access to supermarkets than residents in Wards 1, 4, 6, 7 — although the latter have a comparable or a greater number of residents.
* At every supermarket in the District, foods with high nutritional value such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products are more expensive to purchase than highly processed and less healthy items. It has become clear, in fact, that cheap processed foods are a leading cause of obesity, diabetes and other life-threatening ailments, putting poor people at greater risk of disease and shortened life span because of what they eat.
Does this mean that we can't plant flowers? No, I don't think so. Flowers attract pollinators to the garden and make a lovely border or even a solid bed that is pleasing to the eye. Flowers can be cut and sold at the farmers market to raise funds for the garden. But there are many opportunities to grow flowers in the city other than in the confines of a fenced community garden. Think pocket parks and street medians and tree planters and the beds outside apartment and office buildings and schools. Think apartment balconies and streetside containers and window boxes.
Does turning a "community garden" into a food-centric collective mean we can't plant fennel or broccoli rabe or any of our other favorite designer vegetables? Without getting bogged down in how a reformed community garden would operate, I wouldn't deny the leadership of such a garden the freedom to decide what kinds of things to plant. But in a world with many hungry mouths, I also think it behooves us to get a lot better at growing things like potatoes and beans and corn--things with a big caloric payoff--in addition to lettuce and collard greens, beets and spinach, kale and cabbage.
And does sacrificing a bit of ownership and independence for a higher purpose take all the fun out of gardening? Anyone who has worked as a volunteer in a garden that was not his own can state categorically that it was still every bit as enjoyable and fulfilling.
But most importantly, it is time to accept gardeing as a civic responsibility in this changing world and to press the powers that be in our city to start getting serious about making more public spaces available to grow local foods across the District on an organized basis. This is a matter of policy that only our local office holders can turn into a reality. But D.C. Urban Gardeners, as one of the few organizations of its kind in the city, is in a unique position to play a leadership role on this issue. With the entire culinary world pressing the Obamas to turn the White House lawn over to vegetables, we who know what our local needs are should do no less in our own public spaces. I urge all gardeners who are reading this to ask themselves what they can do to further this goal.
Sources for this article: D.C. Hunger Solutions and the Capital Area Food Bank.