In my past ten years of teaching and researching urban agricultural and local food system initiatives, I have seen community gardens empower communities, clean up blighted lots, increase food security in low income communities, allow immigrant populations to connect with their home country through growing culturally significant crops unavailable in grocery stores, and better the mental health of those suffering from loss or depression.  A study conducted in 2008 estimated that community and squatter gardens in Philadelphia produced the equivalent of  $4.9 million worth of vegetables in one summer – absolutely increasing the food security of many in those neighborhoods

In Providence, where I reside, I’ve worked with the Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) and the African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI) to help use gardens as a tool of economic and personal empowerment.  The African Alliance started in 2004 as an organization to connect West African refugee women to land.  The program began with a small urban plot on the Southside of Providence.  When talking to the director, he told me that right away that this piece of land (about the size of a small urban backyard) gave a handful of women an opportunity to grow culturally appropriate foods.  More importantly, it gave these women, many of whom did not speak English, a reason to get out of the house and to be active.  Within a couple of years, one urban plot turned into 3.  By this time, the women were growing enough excess produce that many decided to sell produce at a local farmers market in the summer.  Day after day, the African crops sold out to other refugees, looking for traditional crops such as sweet potato greens and sour melons, and foodies interested in cooking with “exotic” ingredients.  One woman I talked to a few years back said she was finally able to send money home to her family in Africa. Given the success of the program, , the City of Providence, through their “Lots of Hope” program donated a ½ acre parcel of land (roughly 6 urban plots) to SCLT for the AARI to farm in 2014.  Today, the women are taking English and business lessons to help them keep up with demand at multiple farmers markets in Providence.  This is a story about how growing food can empower a refugee community while also educating the broader community on African culture.

Gardens not only empower, but they also educate.  Native American garden programs in the Southwest and Midwest use gardens as a means to reclaim their food culture and save their heirloom seeds.  I garden in a community garden that brings a diverse set of people together, often talking about seed saving or watering practices, that otherwise may never cross paths.  I see neighbor kids who “hate” vegetables reach for fresh snap peas or carrots and pop them right into their mouths when playing in the garden.

So when a friend of mine asked me to sign a petition that asked to take a portion of a soccer field to turn into a community garden, I resoundedly said…ABSOLUTELY NOT.  You see, I’ve also seen gardens weed over in the summer when nobody is there to manage them; I’ve seen children, often low-income, being displaced from their public playing fields; I’ve seen the enormous cost associated with building fences, raised beds, and water systems (the Lots of Hope program needed a 6 figure grant to kick-off); and I’ve seen food rot on the vines in gardens that are supposedly increasing food access.  The “less romantic” side of gardening became very clear when one of my students spent a year with a local preschool/afterschool program to research the impact of a new student garden on food access in a food desert.  In partnership with my university, the preschool agreed to start a student garden.  Every spring semester for 3 years, university students would help plant and weed the garden, and one student would often stay for the summer to manage the garden.  When my student really dove into the impact on food security, this is what he found: the maintenance guy mowed right over their herb garden; the beets, turnips, and a few other vegetables would often rot in a basket by the front door because parents didn’t pick them up to take home, and the departure of the teacher who championed the project meant a complete lack of interest from the school.  Using the works of Julie Guthman, he quickly concluded that this garden was not increasing access to food at all, and the small amount of time young students spent in the garden didn’t really impact their eating habits.  And this was with a paid student intern maintaining the garden’s upkeep.

This problem is not the exception to the rule with school gardens.  Without complete buy-in from teachers or parents who want to volunteer time in the garden over the summer, when school is out, these gardens are almost doomed to fail.  Sadly, this buy-in is much more likely in middle or upper-middle income communities.  While schools often reach out to other organizations, such as churches or senior centers, to help care for the gardens over the summer, this feat has proven difficult in the few communities where I have gardened.  This is not due to school indifference, but, rather, gardens are rarely at the top of the education priority list and teachers should not be expected to manage gardens during their breaks.

Community gardens can become eyesores in the offseason and can attract loiterers at night if there is not sufficient lighting.  Without proper management, they often weed over or dry out from a lack of watering.  Further, urban community gardens can often act as placeholders until a development offer comes along, making them less than ideal for community-building.  This is not to say that gardens cannot increase food security, just that it takes a lot of time and effort to grow enough food to feed a family for more than a few weeks.  It takes a lot of time to stop by a garden every day to water and weed, and even more time to preserve fruits and vegetables before they rot.  Often, those with the least amount of time to garden are also the ones who are the most food insecure.

While I see gardens as part of the equation to increase food security, especially in the cases mentioned at the beginning of this blog where there is adequate land and community support, they are often just a band-aid solution to the much larger societal problem of food insecurity.  Sometimes heralded as the panacea of food security, indeed the mayor of Providence stated he wants everyone to be within one mile of a community garden, community gardens are but a drop in the bucket compared to much larger food security problem faced in the US, such as a widening income gap, lack of access to inexpensive and nutritious food at grocery stores, and an increasing amount of cropland being used to produce animal feed and biofuels.

Gardens are assets to communities and can increase food security, but it is important not to over romanticize their role in increasing food insecurity in food deserts.  Sometimes, it is more important to volunteer at an already established school garden or to coordinate food aggregation and donations from multiple garden sites, to make sure food does not go to waste, than to start a new community garden. The 2008 Philadelphia Harvest report I mentioned above certainly found that community gardens increased food security in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia, but many of the individual gardeners took it upon themselves to make food security a goal in their neighborhoods – one garden would even drop off boxes on doorsteps as gifts so people would not feel ashamed to take free food.

Gardens can empower people to grow their own food, tie communities to culturally appropriate food, provide an outdoor communal gathering spot, and create green space in urban jungles.  I strongly support community gardens as tools that serves many functions in urban planning, however, I also caution that gardens are not a food security cure-all.  For those interested in starting a community garden to increase food security, it is important to step back and look at the larger picture of community need and to make a plan for how the garden will specifically increase food security.   Sometimes, community space can be better served than providing 20 families with a 4X8” plot.  Sometimes, a soccer field is more useful to community health than a garden.

Dr. Dawn King, Brown University