Community Gardens: Cultivating Opportunities

Next time you sit down at the table, I invite you to ask yourself where the food on your plate came from — not where it was purchased, but where it was grown. How did it end up on your dinner table?

Although in recent years there has been a movement among consumers to purchase locally grown food, there is still a huge disconnect with many in regards to where and how their food is produced. The American Journal of Public Health states that the lack of understanding about how our food is produced is an undermining factor in America’s diet and healthy food choices.

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A rooftop garden on top of a church in San Francisco.

Community gardens are playing a huge role in reconnecting people to the process of growing food by providing a tangible example of the inputs such as the time, energy, and resources that go into the production of real food. Throughout the United States and Canada, there are about 18,000 community gardens. The USDA states that about 15% of the world’s food is grown in urban areas such as backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in unused spaces, and roadside urban fringe agriculture.

What Can Community Gardens Do For You?

Community gardens allow individuals to take food production into their own hands, as well as increase the intake of fruits and vegetables in an affordable manner. People who participated in community and home gardens reported higher levels of fruit and vegetable consumption than non-gardeners. A little over half of community gardeners consumed fruit and vegetables at least 5 times a day, in comparisonhealth-benefits-of-gardening-infographic to about 40% of home gardeners, and only 25% of non-gardeners as found by the American Journal of Public Health. By fostering a closer relationship with their food and growing it on their own, community gardeners felt more inclined to eat fruits and vegetables.

Being a part of a community garden empowers you to dictate what is being used to grow your food. You have a say in determining if you want the garden to be organic and pesticide-free, or if you want to use processed fertilizer or compost. You hold the power to determine what goes into your produce, and ultimately what goes into your body.

Community gardens are full of incredible benefits that can lead to healthier communities. Not only do they help provide food security and increase environmental awareness and education, but they can also connect people, preserve open space, and create recreational and therapeutic opportunities for a community.

Digging Deeper: A Deeper Meaning of Community Gardens

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Excited children from Explore Ecology’s School Gardens Program.

In a study conducted of 42 families in 2012, researchers found that vegetable intake increased three-fold in adults and four-fold in children when families participated in community gardening. Besides economic benefits and increased fruit and vegetable intake, families have expressed that community gardens foster cultural benefits as well. For example, Latino families found that participating in community gardening continued traditions that they had learned in Mexico, while also fostering a feeling of togetherness within the family and spending more time outdoors.

While gardening has been an important cultural tradition in most of the world, this is not necessarily true in the U.S. This could be due, in part, to a huge concentration of commodity crops such as wheat, corn and soy that result in Americans lacking identification with and connection to their food. In many areas outside of the U.S., gardening has played an important role in daily life and has generational, spiritual, and cultural ties. Immigrants in the U.S. note that these traditions provide an outlet to reconnect to their cultural ties by allowing them to grow familiar foods and to develop a friendly environment with others who appreciate or understand their culture.

Community gardens are also an important tool to reduce hunger and poverty by providing individuals the power to feed themselves and generate income, which is important for community identity and individual and economic empowerment.  Participation in one’s community creates feelings of empowerment, self-worth, and pride, as found in a study released by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Community garden empowerment has been exemplified in Los Angeles with Food from the Hood (FFTH), an organization created after the 1992 riots. To help rebuild community, students from Crenshaw High turned an abandoned lot behind their football field into a two-acre fruit and vegetable garden. Twenty-five percent of what they grew was donated to people in need, and the rest sold for profit. Their profits were awarded in the form of scholarships to students upon graduating high-school.

Celebrity Community Gardens

Community gardens have begun to increase in popularity as more people realize their value, which has been particularly prominent in schools and colleges. Many elementary schools are implementing gardening programs in an effort to encourage rich, healthy relationships with food.

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The six education goals of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation’s farm to school initiative.

The Kokua Hawaii Foundation and the ‘ĀINA In Schools program, founded by Jack and Kim Johnson, is a farm to school initiative connecting children to their local land, waters, and food. The program focuses on encouraging the use of locally grown foods in school meals and snacks and nutrition, garden and compost curriculum that empowers children to make their own food decisions, and reduce their waste. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative launched in 2010 highlights the importance of community and school gardens in creating a healthy start for children and empowering communities.

Initiatives such as these reinforce the fact that growing your food in community gardens reconnect us to the land, allowing us to better understand and appreciate the value of food and process of food production. We can also connect to such initiatives by looking for local opportunities to support this bigger movement.

Explore Ecology, a Santa Barbara based nonprofit, embraced their new School Gardens program in early 2014, in which they deliver environmental education and hands-on experience to 32 schools in Santa Barbara County. Explore Ecology works to connect children with their food, from a farm to table perspective.

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The A.S. Department of Public Worms planting seedlings for the Edible Campus Project. Photo taken from UCSB Sustainability.

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Kim and Jack Johnson kicking off the Edible Campus Project with the planting of two orange trees last year. The oranges produced are donated to the A.S. Food Bank for student distribution. Photo taken from UCSB Current.

The University of California Santa Barbara is also making headway in having a community garden in a central area directly on campus. This is part of a project known as the Edible Campus Project. It was launched in 2015 and aims to incorporate more food on campus through fruit trees, a garden space, and underutilized spaces from walkways to empty planters around campus. 

The main goal of this garden is to address food insecurity among students, and to demystify the knowledge it takes of when to plant and how to grow one’s own food, says Nancy Yang. Yang is a senior at UCSB who is one of the UC Global Food Initiative fellows, and an intern of the Edible Campus Project. The space for a new community garden on campus is about 4,000 square feet, and is being planned to produce about 1,000 pounds of produce per month. This food will be donated to the Associated Students Food Bank on campus to be given out to students.

“Being well-nourished is a big part of retention in college students, but is not something that has been quantified,” says Yang. The UC Global Food Initiative will be releasing food insecurity surveys in July, to show more tangible numbers quantifying food insecurity on college campuses.

Cultivating Opportunities

You can plant the seeds of a bigger movement of connection with food and land, individual and community empowerment, and sustainability. Plant your own garden, work in a friend’s, volunteer in a school garden, or find one in your community. If you are more on the ambitious side, and want to start your own community or school garden, you can follow Let’s Move initiative checklist on how to get started. Cultivate a deeper connection with the values of food and beyond, and inspire others to join you!

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