Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are Community Gardens Obsolete? Part II

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.


ppolischuk said...

I think I do some of what I can do toward promoting urban food production. How can we get the District to make public spaces available to grow food? I looked up the code and it's not worded quite as strongly as one would like, but it's still in there. How do we move forward?

Anonymous said...

There should be space for both. Many people who use community gardens are already disenfranchised. We're poor, we're landless, we're students, we're immigrants, we're apartment dwellers. Perhaps this is not true in DC. It is true at my garden. There is value in letting us have our own space. Better organization and techniques are fantastic, but I am wary of the idea of taking land out of the hands of those who have the least. I'm sure you mean well, and I'm sure you mean to "help" us. Traditionally, though, such moves have only worked if the community does it themselves, and we have good reason to be wary of outside "improvements."
But will you also champion the conversion of the golf courses (averaging 150 acres) into small farms? Will you set up programs to encourage landlords and landowners to give their land over to food crops?
Or will you stop at advocating taking what we have now, and telling us nothing is lost by removing our control?
I honestly think you believe you're being helpful, and you're probably right - if we planted corn in rows altogether, pollination would increase, and yields would be higher. But I'd like you to reconsider why people might be resistant. How is being allowed to volunteer for someone else's plan in exchange for food different than working and harvesting your own plan? Why might the former strike the wrong chord for some of us? If you can address some of these class/power issues, you might be more successful.

Ed Bruske said...

pp, before we can move forward, there needs to be more people behind this issue. Perhaps we can find out who in the mayor's office this falls under and start a conversation. Liz Falk with the 7th Street garden is aware and interested. But up to now, no one seems to have the time or the resources to persue it.

Anon, I normally don't publish anonymous comments, but you raise good points. Local gardens should be controlled by the local community, not ruled over from the outside. What I'm suggesting is that community gardens reconsider how they go about their business in order to be more productive and more inclusive. But perhaps government agencies that are in charge of making land available for community gardens, such as the parks and recreation department here in the District of Columbia, should consider new rules that would favor collective farming over individual plots. I'm all in favor of turning gold courses and other land parcels into farms, as well as the space around public and private buildings. I think that's something that may very well come to pass if energy supplies continue to decline. If some of the proposed scenarios come to pass, then we will certainly be forced to make collective accomodations or a lot of people are going to go hungry.

eatclosetohome said...

I think instead of redefining "community garden plots," you might find a smoother path by simply advocating for creating urban farms, either cooperative or for-profit.

E said...

Great conversation. As Ed said, he and I have been throwing around this legislation and talk about 'now what' for over a year now. I would love to see something come of it and see if we can get some city backing. After our painfully long and difficult process of getting the new site for 7th Street Garden I literally just asked this week about working with those city officials we just worked with on that process to work with us to come up with a way that it will be easier for future organizations trying to get land for gardens. Of those I heard responses from, which is 2 of 5, there wasn't much support to make this any sort of priority or even get it on the to do list. One very informed person insisted we would need somebody in the mayors office to really REALLY want to see this happen and to held push it through. We don't know who that would be... I would love take this conversation further with interested parties, but I do fear sitting on another committee of people working for a good cause who are all so busy to actually do anything. I would like to see a solid focus among the foodie/garden/food security groups in DC. There have been some momentum on this and I think we need to all keep pushing to make it continue. I wonder if the problem is really have a large NGO here leading the way, like a Just Food or something. I don't know. (and now I'm just bantering...)

Anonymous said...

I think what could work is a group of people meeting monthly to organize movements in DC. The movements I see (though I'm sure I am missing some): 1. fresh food access for all 1a. gardens. store 1d.other 2. increase urban agriculture production (actually getting people to grow) 2b. school gardens 2c. community gardens 3. policy/legislation. This would be an ACTIVE group of people with the time, knowledge, and energy to really make things happen. Of course, this isn't a new idea, and actually, already there exists a Healthy Corner Initiative, a Farmers Market Collaborative, a Healthy Affordable Food for All committee, DC Schoolyard Gardens, all the DCUG folk, and that's just to name a few. But I don't think all these committees and collaborative talk much- in an organized and productive way I mean. So, we have the people, we have the interest, how do we get all these movements working together?

Ed Bruske said...

anon, virtually all of the groups you mentioned were represented on the DCUG board of directors. Unfortunately, they had a hard time identifying a unifying mission and found it equally difficult identifying a time when they could all meet. In other words, we had a vision, but no execution.

Ed Bruske said...

Liz, my response to the previous comment touched on this. We never got any traction trying to move the DCUG vision. As a result, the organization has basically collapsed. But perhaps if we just used that 20-year-old Urban Gardens legislation as a focus and hammered away at it with a united front, we might at least be able to hold something together. I'm coming to think that it's all about sustainability. It's shocking that the District of Columbia does not have a sustainability czar. So many other jurisdictions are moving in that direction.

Ecolocity said...

Ed, thank you for setting out the issues so clearly. I'm glad to know these issues have been the focus of attention. We at Ecolocity are not intent on reinventing the wheel, but prefer to build on what has been done. I'd be happy to meet with you, Liz Falk and anyone else interested in sustainability to pick up back where you left off. Our next scheduled meeting is Tuesday, Feb 3, 7 pm at ECAC, 733 Euclid St NW and will be devoted to these ideas. If you are unable to attend on this occasion, i can meet at some other time.

Tiffany @ the garden apartment said...

I've enjoyed reading this series. Thank you for posting so thoughtfully on this topic.
I am actually a former DCPS teacher, and I personally witnessed many of the statistics you refer to. In particular, I was alarmed that many of my students would bring family sized bags of potato chips to school as their lunch. At one point, I was given permission to work with my students on a garden program, but beyond money for the supplies, I was given very little outside assistance . As a teacher this made it very difficult to create the garden successfully-- especially with all the other demands on inner-city teachers (ie. testing, which happens in the spring at the same time gardens need to be planted). I think it's a great idea to get students and the community more involved in projects like this, but there has to be major support from people in the community who can assist with the education, the workload, and understand other concerns/ pressures that affect the communities they are working with.

grace said...

Tiffany (et al) - DC Schoolyard Greening (I'm guessing incorrectly referred to as DC Schoolyard Gardens elsewhere in these comments) was started in 2003 as a response to the needs of teachers who wanted to start school gardens but didn't know how... we are an all-volunteer endeavor, but manage to put together a spring workshop every year for teachers (this year toward the end of March) as well as an informational website at Just as teachers struggle to fit gardening into their schedules, I know many people who want to help also struggle with finding the time to do so who have their own job workload and concerns/pressures. I truly admire the community members and teachers at schools such as Watkins ES, Bancroft ES, Cardozo SHS, Horace Mann ES, Brent ES (to name a few - there are more than many people realize!) who have started gardening projects and kept them going.