October 2017

The Most Important Word in “Community Gardening” is not ‘Gardening!’


Mark Winne


Community gardening and urban agriculture play important roles in promoting food security, healthy eating and a sustainable and equitable food system. For those reasons, I’m going to explore three myths that are part of the community gardening conversation.


Myth Number One: Community gardening nurtures human tranquility and oneness with nature. Myth Number Two: urban gardens and farms will feed a hungry world and create a slew of good-paying jobs. Myth Number Three: Gardeners and farmers exist in such a singular state of purity that they can float above the political fray and never engage with public policy.


Let’s dispense with the first myth—the supernatural power of community gardening to assuage the anxieties of modern life. When I lived in Hartford, I was a member of a community garden that sat on the banks of a small river and adjoined meadows that were home to cardinals, orioles and bluebirds. The riverbanks were alive with muskrats, skunks and the occasional lettuce-eating deer.


But early one June, a gardener discovered a large woodchuck had taken up residence inside the garden and was munching everything he could get his little paws on. The men mobilized immediately. Three volunteers located the furry interloper’s points of access and egress and stood watch with hoes and shovels at the ready. The leader, carrying a gasoline canister, found the chuck’s main entrance and filled it with petrol. Yelling, “Fire in the hole!” he dropped a full book of lit matches into the now saturated warren, sending a fireball 20 feet into the air. The singed, but still agile chuck darted for his life from one of his exits, only to be greeted by shovel-wielding gardeners who—plowshares now turned into weapons—soon dispatched the poor fellow in a most unsavory manner.


Man’s dominance over nature was restored, and all tranquility came to a grinding halt. A recent New York Times article stated that, “If you’re a human being living in 2017 and you’re not anxious, there’s something wrong with you.” According to T, 36 percent of girls and 26 percent of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 suffer from anxiety disorder. For adults, anxiety fuels marijuana purchases that are now a $6.7 billion industry. Those who voted for Trump did so because they were anxious; those who did not are now extremely anxious.

Now more than ever we need to reaffirm the paradisiacal qualities of community gardens by slowing down to sniff the zucchini blossoms, take a Zen walk along garden paths, and savor the deliciousness of the productions of the earth.


Myth Number Two: Community gardening and urban agriculture will feed a hungry world and create lots of jobs. First, let’s be clear about the causes of hunger and food insecurity. They are poverty, which is itself fueled by America’s enormous wealth—and income disparities. Poverty won’t be altered by community gardens or anything other than a radical restructuring of our tax code. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits.


My colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future looked closely at urban agriculture and found that it:

1.     Significantly increased social capital, community well-being and civic engagement

2.     Provides a number of ecosystem services to urban areas, (e.g. one pound of food production displaces two pounds of carbon)

3.     Supports participants’ physical and psychosocial health

4.     Supplements household food security

5.     Is associated with increased property values

6.     Offers opportunities for skills development, workforce training and supplemental income.

7.     Reduces obesity, crime and municipal maintenance costs


Of course, skeptics abound. Spokespersons for “Big Agriculture” have turned their noses up at so-called “utopian farmers” whose holdings are so small they can barely support a rototiller. But with a billion of the globe’s people hungry, a billion undernourished and another billion obese, conventional forms of agriculture have hardly earned bragging rights.


Let’s consider myth number three: Community gardeners don’t need to work on public policy. Over 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln, speaking in favor of the newly formed land grant university system and the Department of Agriculture, said, “Our population [will] increase [which makes] the most valuable of all arts…the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art can ever be the victim of oppression. Such a community will be independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings.”


Fast forward to the present, and we see food policy activity and community farming and gardening going gangbusters. The Santa Fe City/County Food Policy, one of 250 such councils nationwide, worked with the City of Santa Fe to craft a cutting-edge urban-agriculture zoning ordinance.


Cleveland’s food policy council played a critical role in revamping that city’s zoning practices to support community gardening and the raising of chickens and bees. They worked to provide financial support for urban farms, and to change the city’s food procurement practices to give premium pricing to food produced in the city.


Los Angeles added another dimension to municipal support for urban farming with an ordinance that allows property owners to lease their land to food growers in return for tax benefits. The ordinance is designed to turn vacant pieces of land into productive urban garden and farm plots to produce food for surrounding neighborhoods.


My message boils down to this:

·        The most important word in “community gardening” is “community.”

·        Work with other groups and interests, recognizing that you are stronger together than you are alone.

·        Engage government; the people and the policymakers must be on the same page. This is what they call democracy.

·        If you don’t belong to a food policy council, join one.

·        Create a message that unifies your work and speaks to the proven benefits of community gardening.

·        Poverty is the cause of hunger; we must eliminate poverty to end income and wealth inequality.


Mark Winne is the co-chair of the Santa Fe Food Policy Council and senior advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. His forthcoming book is Stand Together or Starve Alone: Unity and Chaos in the U.S. Food Movement. Website address for local community gardens and resources: https://milagrocommunitygarden.wordpress.com/community-garden-resources/




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