How a community garden will steal your heart

Let’s talk about food. Things are changing, and they have been for some time. Even back in the 70’s when the convenience of “engineered to withstand packaging and shipping” processed food took over, there was resistance to that beast. The resistance could have been due to poverty or simply for a love of growing their own food. Either way, the food movement is now, and it’s growing stronger each day. I attended a luncheon organized by the Virginia Green Building Council earlier this week, and was truly inspired by the stories, charisma, and passion Tanya Denckla Cobb expressed. She recounted her experiences, journeys, and stories surrounding this food movement across the U.S.Tanya is an Environmental Mediator at the Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia. She has been involved and researching this food movement since the late 80s. She is the author of, Reclaiming Our Food, which explores the movement in great detail.


As we eagerly listen and munch away on our sandwiches from Mona Lisa Pasta, Tanya encourages us to pipe up about why people are interested in this food movement and to think about what the motivating factors are surrounding the movement. Why do we shop at the farmer’s market or choose local foods? Why do we participate in community garden programs? She reiterates our responses: that there is a desire to regain a trust in our food and to re-establish a connection to our food. Of course, we also just want better tasting, less engineered processed food. We aren’t the only ones. Tanya wants to show us the motivation for urban farming and the food movement and the explore the impacts.

Healing lands and communities

She begins our journey in the heart of Philadelphia, PA. GreensGrow is a community garden that was started by two chefs who basically said, “We want a better tomato. We want a tomato with explosions of flavor. We need local tomatoes. We need a local farm.” Of course, having a farm in the middle of the city might sound impossible, but these two chefs and the community transformed an abandoned and contaminated lot into a beautiful productive flourishing urban farm. After an 18 inch concrete cap was poured on the site to remedy the contamination, they started with hydroponics and then moved to using raised beds. Now they offer educational tours, cooking demonstrations, and have greenhouses for year round production. What was once an eyesore and health hazard to the community is now a nationally recognized leader in urban farming.

I’m halfway through my caprese sandwich on focaccia, and we’re traveling to Boston, MA, which is also a mecca for urban farming. The South End and Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust consists of 16 community gardens and pocket parts. Upon visiting some of these gardens Tanya was impressed by how the people are “ingenious and creative in finding ways to use spaces in communities.” Some of the garden plots were using the space in all three dimensions to grow food. These gardens were started in the 1970’s and are an integral part of the community’s identity. They have been passed down from generation to generation. After the Boston School of Public health conducted soil testing in some of the gardens, they realized it was contaminated with creosote from the railroad ties that were generously provided to create structure for the plots. Upon proposing that the gardens be closed, the community vehemently protested, which has opened up a whole new field of research on ways to clean the soil and remove the contamination to save the gardens. Growing collards and sunflowers will remove some toxins from the soil over about a five year period. Ultimately, the ties were removed and a mixture of two parts healthy soil to one part contaminated soil was deemed acceptable.

Now we’re on the other coast in Portland, OR. A once termed “shut in neighborhood” where crime, drugs, and trash prevailed, and no sense of community existed makes a dramatic shift. A small garden was installed in the center of this public housing complex. Subsequently, the people in the apartments started interacting with each other regularly, crime rates went down, they started cleaning up, and they said no more drugs in our neighborhood. It transformed this neighborhood so much so that the public housing authority asked the organizers to set one up in all of their public housing complexes.

Another Portland, OR public housing community was the recipient of a Hope VI grant, which aims to revitalize the worst public housing projects into mixed-income developments. A community garden established in one of these developments really is the heart of the community. Without the garden there wouldn’t be much interaction between the different cultures or income brackets. The residents of the development formed the Seeds of Harmony Garden Committee to put serious thought into what they wanted to get out the garden and what they wanted to grow. Ultimately, they wanted it to be about sharing ideas, culture, and love.

The gardens do more than heal lands and communities. They also allow individuals and communities to flourish, and can be a center for professional and economic development. Janus Youth has been very instrumental in the development of several urban farming programs in low-income neighborhoods in the Portland, OR area, one of which is the Seeds of Harmony Garden. They aim to unite the various cultures in the community, encourage entrepreneurship, provide employment and job skills training, and facilitate youth development by providing leadership opportunities at Food Works, a three acre certified organic farm.

Now we journey a little farther up the West Coast. Seattle, WA has made strides toward allowing public lands to be used for private profit, something frowned upon in many areas of the U.S. The result has been very beneficial to those low income families that take advantage of the P-Patch Community Gardens. They can grow produce, which they can both sell at farmer’s markets and use to feed their families. The P-Patch gardens are much more though. They really are a place for all members of the Seattle community, and “are places to share love of gardening, cultivate friendships, strengthen neighborhoods, increase self-reliance, wildlife habitat, foster environmental awareness, relieve hunger, improve nutrition, and enjoy recreational and therapeutic opportunities.”

Hopping back to the East Coast, one of the most impressive stories of passion, entrepreneurship, and economic development is Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, MA. A community of migrated Puerto Rican farmers gazed upon a vacant lot below their apartment building. The area was the poorest in Massachusetts after the loss of many tobacco harvesting and paper mill jobs. The members of the community knew what to do, they knew how to grow food, so they were perplexed as to why they were not able to feed their families. Finally, they decided to do something about it. They occupied the abandoned lot and built a garden incorporating vibrant colors into the structures. They put so much work and detail into the gardens. When Tanya asked “what if the land owner comes back and wants to take over?” They said, “so what? We’ll go somewhere else. It’s better to light a candle than curse the dark.” Eventually, they further developed and opened a co-op, restaurant, and use the space to help other members of the community start small businesses. Finally, they realized they needed large plots of land so that they could train others how to farm. They acquired a 30 acre inner city farm where they focus on food systems, economic development, and agriculture.

Kids are the key

Above all, one of the primary motivating factors of this movement is health. Two-thirds of the population in developing nations is overweight or obese. Just as the push to recycle saw success when kids brought home school projects about recycling and “dragged the parents along,” so too will the food movement, and an emphasis on eating healthy, buying local, or growing your own. Community gardens are popping up at schools all across the U.S. It might start out as an after school garden club, which gets the parents involved and funds are raised to actually build the garden. Next, the kids have recipe contests or tastings to get familiar with the vegetables. Then the cafeteria serves the food from the gardens on the lunch menu. The kids’ garden is incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum to further emphasize its importance. Finally, the child starts to educate parents about the vegetables. Tanya found in one circumstance, the parent didn’t even know how to cook the vegetables after a kid actually chose brussel sprouts, when he could have anything he wanted in the store!

Small Act grows big results

On closing, Tanya expresses that she hopes she has demonstrated “how a seed can be planted that can transform and heal spaces, identities, our health, and our communities.” These gardens perfectly embody how a Small Act can blossom into something much greater with more meaning than just food on a dinner plate. The essence of this movement is about love and community. It’s about reclaiming our land, and reclaiming our food.

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