Community Gardens Can Produce a Meaningful Amount of Food. Will They Survive Pandemic Budget Cuts?
During the warm months, on plots scattered across cities — in parks, on derelict lots, tucked between public housing apartment buildings — community gardeners of all ages and skill levels coax fresh food from sometimes minuscule parcels of soil.
The benefits of this act have been researched and documented for years; community gardening has been credited with increasing physical activity and access to the outdoors, teaching kids where food comes from, strengthening neighborhoods, enhancing environments, reducing disease, and providing access to culturally significant produce.
As an alarming, increasing, number of Americans report food insecurity with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continuing to ravage the country, the ability of community gardens to supply meaningful amounts of healthy food to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it could be, arguably, their greatest power. For example, Brooklynite Denver Butson, who this year tends —inefficiently, by his own estimation — a 4-foot-by-4-foot half-plot, for a $40 investment will raise all the bok choy, cabbage, and salad greens his family can consume for the growing season, plus a decent haul of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, peas, and herbs.
But with cities scrambling to draw up budgets from the ashes of their COVID-flamed coffers, some advocates worry that the role these gardens play to self-sufficiency will be overlooked, leaving them with reduced funding streams.
Garden Funding on the Chopping Block
The budget for fiscal year 2020 included $8.2 million to support 550 community gardens run by the parks department. These comprise a significant percentage of an estimated 1,350-plus community gardens (not including school gardens) throughout the five boroughs. In a statement, the parks department told FoodPrint that last year’s budget “allowed us to expand support to all gardens” with, among other things, 45,000 food-producing plants that will see the gardens “throughout the pandemic and current fiscal crisis.” But with such funds absent from the 2021 budget, the longer-term solvency of these gardens is a looming question.
“We have seen elected officials at all levels of government…acknowledge how community gardens empower their members to not only choose what they eat but also how it’s grown and distributed,” wrote Tara Gitter to FoodPrint via email. Gitter is a government affairs manager for the New York Restoration Project, which runs 52 gardens that are partly endowed by another municipal pot: discretionary city funds that took as much as a 50 percent hit in the new budget. “The COVID-19 crisis has shown how our leaders tout the value of our parks and gardens in creating resilient communities, and how in trying times, parks and gardens are left out to dry.”
Christine Porter, a public health professor at the University of Wyoming who conducted a recent study of community and home garden outcomes in Laramie, calls an impetus to downplay gardens’ importance “old thinking. It mystifies me that in the country that invented the victory garden, we have backslid.”
Her study set out to prove to Laramie Valley’s county commission that despite the challenges of things like an inhospitable climate, food could be grown there. What Porter concluded was that community and home gardening “grow meaningful amounts of food that exceeded our expectations, and in a way that can be transformative for producers,” for whom planting seeds is, quite literally, “planting hope.”
The pandemic has only increased the necessity of this enterprise. As was reported extensively in March and April, industrialized food systems, while efficient in the best of times, “break down easily because there’s no redundancy,” Porter says. Community gardens, on the other hand, help create a hyper-local food system that can’t be disrupted — “Especially if you save seeds and also get some [gardening] skills.”
The federal government has given a nod to the public health relevance of such systems — notably, allowing SNAP recipients to use their benefits on seeds and seedlings. But this a long way from ensuring that anyone who wants, or needs, to garden is able to, at a time when so many Americans are careening towards hunger, or have landed there already.
Impacts on Refugee Communities
The idea that community gardens are expendable “is a common sentiment, especially in times of budgetary constraint like we’re now seeing across the country,” says James Hunter. He’s program manager of the Salt Lake City outpost of the International Rescue Committee’s 25-city New Roots community gardening initiative for refugees.
Part of the problem as he sees it: “People don’t have knowledge and experience of what community gardens are capable of; it generally takes someone telling stories about potential production and folks seeing that potential firsthand.”
Almost 150 families — newly arrived in Salt Lake City from Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, East and Central Africa, among other countries — raise food on 250 New Roots community garden plots for their own use; another 43 families raise food to sell at farmers markets and via a CSA, as well as to Whole Foods and local school districts. Making up 6 percent of Salt Lake County’s population, refugees often live at or around the poverty line, which puts them at high risk for food insecurity. In fact, New Roots was conceived specifically as a food access intervention for this vulnerable group.
Hunter says that 86 percent of New Roots’ refugee gardeners report saving an average of $30 a week by growing things like amaranth, long beans, pumpkin shoots, greens, and eggplants. It’s a significant amount for a family uncertain of how it will be able to scrounge for groceries after paying for top expenditures of rent and transportation.
“When we get local leaders willing to say they value urban agriculture as a key piece of hunger relief, that’s the buy-in we want to see.”
Adds Yarrow Koning, community development program manager for gardening nonprofit Global Growers in Atlanta, GA, the US Bureau of Population, Resettlement, and Migration supports the basic needs of new entrants for a mere 90 days, thereafter leaving them challenged to find work even if they have credentials from their home countries, and with healthcare that runs out all-too-quickly. Food that refugees grow themselves can be a financial lifesaver; it can also be a way to connect with others sharing their resettlement experience and to receive wrap-around services, from ESL classes to local growing tips, from organizations such as Global Growers and IRC.
Funding for Salt Lake’s New Roots gardens is locked in for now, coming as it does from state and USDA grants, with land leased at favorable rates from the city or county, backed with a “state-level task force invested in working on these issues, as well as city and county dedicated staff for urban farming initiatives,” says Hunter. “When we get local leaders willing to say they value urban agriculture as a key piece of hunger relief, that’s the buy-in we want to see.”
Donating Food to Hunger Relief Programs
Seattle’s P-Patch program runs 90 community gardens serving 3,127 residents of low-income communities (40 percent of them report household income under $60,000). Program supervisor Kenya Fredie says garden-centric initiatives have long been a priority for the city, largely in response to resident pushback against development.
More recently, “Food security has been huge with this [mayoral] administration,” Fredie says. But with Covid-19, “We’re finding the need to be able to grow your own food has spiked — we’re seeing the importance of food security happening right now.”
A percentage of what P-Patch gardeners grow is for their own use. The rest is donated to food pantries and feeding programs at shelters and elsewhere; in 2019, 54 of the gardens donated over 38,000 pounds of food. This is yet another critical role that gardens can play.
Seattle is attempting to work out its own 2021 budget as of this writing, and the Department of Neighborhoods, which oversees P-Patch, “is advocating for the program to stay in the budget,” Fredie says. Nevertheless, she predicts, “It’s gonna be tight.”
Community Voices Needed
Tamara Downs Schwei is a food policy coordinator for the city of Minneapolis’s sustainability division. She oversees its Homegrown Minneapolis program, which hosts 60 gardens — many in racially diverse neighborhoods with concentrations of poverty, she says; she’s also just secured (private) funding for two passive solar greenhouses, which will allow gardeners to extend their growing season into the frigid Minnesota winter.
An important piece of getting — and keeping — these gardens operational was working to change zoning regulations so that there was “flexibility for people to have a garden nearly anywhere if they had a place for it,” says Downs Schwei. It also meant figuring out how to offer leases to community gardens on city-owned property, then ensuring those gardens could be made permanent.
Sixty gardens live on city property now, and Downs Schwei says that in these neighborhoods, “when given the opportunity to grow food, residents have been incredible producers in small spaces of vegetables and herbs that support their diets.” The University of Minnesota and Princeton University are currently amassing data to back up the impacts Downs Schwei and others are able to see with their own eyes when they visit flourishing gardens.
Ultimately, what Downs Schwei and other garden facilitators believe to be essential to success is not just funding, but a strong policy behind it. And to get that, she says, requires that constituents make their voices heard.
“I’m on the staff of the city and my role is to support this,” says Downs Schwei. “But it’s no substitute for people showing up and saying, ‘This is critical to my community.’”
Top photo by Anna-Yatskevich for New York Restoration Project.