Community Gardens

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Feeding Body and Soul

Miss Minnie brought us eggs from her backyard chickens.

Curles Neck Dairy delivered bottles of milk from nearby county cows to our back porch. And Farmer John’s rusty pick-up rumbled through the alley behind our house with fresh veggies for sale.

The butcher and grocer at neighborhood Stonewall Market (where delivery was an option) rounded out the basic food groups for our table. This was the food delivery system of my childhood in the city of Richmond. This was before agri-business and super market chains took over.

Waste Not, Want Not and Third-World Nutrition
Mom regularly referenced “Starving Armenians” when admonishing my sisters and me to eat every morsel placed before us (like it or not). Despite only vague awareness of where these poor people were starving (or what we could do about it), I grasped her point that we weren’t to take the privilege of three wholesome meals a day for granted. First-hand experience with those struggling for nutritious meals in less well-fed neighborhoods of our own city came later through Girl Scout, school, and church service projects.

But inadequate nutrition didn’t really wrench my heart until I lived in Korea for two years in the ’60s (then a third-world country).

It dug even deeper into my soul when working more recently in small villages in Malawi, Africa (one of the poorest countries in the world) on several mission trips. With my own eyes, I witnessed the gnawing struggle for food through seasonal subsistence farming in community gardens—pooling resources, labor and sparse produce.

Maize (corn)-based nsima (pronounced see’-ma) is the starchy staple for Malawians. When supply is short, help comes from nearby Zambia—and from around the globe through The World Food Bank—with donated corn, rice, soybeans and more from Spain, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the U.S. and other countries. Seeing this, I understood community gardening on a global scale: A global community of gardeners in spirit—caring, growing and sharing.

Growing food locally to feed the hungry globally. Thank you, Mom, for teaching me not to take food for granted.

Delivery Systems and Food Deserts
As still practiced in Malawi, community gardens supplied food for people since man evolved from “hunter-gatherers” to “local growers” many millennia ago. Then people gravitated to cities, our agrarian economy in the U.S. gave way to urbanization and industrialization, and more centralized agriculture and large grocery stores became the norm, with notable exceptions such as WWII Victory Gardens—promoted by the government to bring our nation together. A swift post-WWII rise in agribusiness, mass-produced foods, and mega-grocery conglomerates, convenience stores, and fast food chains, brings us to today’s efficient and economically viable food delivery system, despite a brief resurgence of community gardens in the U.S in the 1970s inspired by the environmental movement.

But there’s a downside: Agribusiness and grocery conglomerates have not solved the problem of dietary deficiencies in lower socio-economic neighborhoods. In fact, they have exacerbated it. Results of a 2011 study by my former colleague in the Economics department of Randolph College, Professor John Abell, and others on Inner City Food Deserts in Lynchburg, suggest that “downtown Lynchburg is indeed a food and pharmaceutical desert.”

Grocery chains locate where profits are greatest. Business 101.
So, with Lynchburg’s 24 percent poverty rate, many poor residents live in neighborhoods without healthful food markets. I remember when Food Lion pulled the plug on its Bedford Avenue store leaving those without cars looking for bus routes to buy reasonably priced, healthful food. Grocery chains as their food delivery system had failed them.

Granted, we have a thriving community farmers’ market, as well as churches, service groups, and charities. We have Daily Bread, Meals on Wheels, Gateway and others to help feed those in need, so we aren’t reminded of poverty and starvation by dramatic images of skeletal people dying on the side of the road. Yet lack of access to healthful food is linked to an insidious illness here. And it kills.

People living in food deserts—without neighborhood food markets or transportation to healthful groceries—tend to walk to the corner convenience store to grab fast food, chips, candy and sodas to fuel their day. Then what? Poor nutrition. Obesity. Diabetes. And other social ills.

Buses and Beyond
Fortunately, our city has improved bus routes to markets.

Other successful efforts include educational school programs and gardens run by the Hill City Master Gardener Association (HCMGA), under the auspices of the Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE).

But this still isn’t enough. Buses aren’t necessarily the answer for parents corralling a passel of kids, the disabled struggling to schlep groceries home, or shut-ins; and school programs aren’t putting three square meals on the table for these kids every day. Taking it a step further, the HCMGA established community gardens at the Boys and Girls Club, Jubilee Center, Juvenile Detention Center, and more—
so kids can understand where their food comes from, cultivate and harvest a garden, and take fresh produce home.

The answer seems to be community gardens—currently defined as “any piece of land gardened by a group of people.” In some early-adopter, high-density cities, such as San Francisco, a rental garden plot in a premier community garden has a waiting list of many years.

Increasing reliance on these gardens is generating enthusiasm and traction as a movement across the U.S, and state land-grant university extension agents are actively promoting them.

Our own VCE agent, Kevin Camm, is passionately promoting community gardens across our city. And broader efforts are underway to develop a regional agricultural strategic plan for a systemic stable supply and access to affordable, healthful food delivery systems, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

The “How To” For Success
The “Nuts and Bolts” for establishing successful community gardens include bringing together the right partners, sponsors, funders, budget and neighborhood leaders—and a relentless drive for success.

Commitment, cooperation and collaboration are the three critical “C’s”—and we’re seeing our city, VCE, HCMGA, Randolph College, Lynchburg Grows, churches (such as St. John’s Episcopal, Holy Trinity Lutheran and Quaker Memorial Presbyterian), Camp Kum-Ba-Yah, private landowners, and more all coming together to make it work. The HCMGA community garden at Humankind is on the horizon after countless hours of putting these three “C’s” into practice, plus many hours of on-the-ground effort by Master Gardener Richard Givens and other volunteers. This garden will offer everyone in our community a rental plot (San Francisco style) to grow vegetables, fruits, or flowers, and it will serve as an educational center to show people the “how to” as well as provide food preservation demonstrations.

Lynchburg’s Department of Parks and Recreation maintains gardens on city properties and a general directory of “What’s in My Neighborhood”—and they just won a statewide award for encouraging healthier eating. Much of the credit goes to cooperative efforts spearheaded by Parks and Rec employees, Howard Covey and Lucy Hudson, who are also Master Gardeners.

Land for community gardens may be rented, borrowed or owned. Randolph College maintains an organic community garden with plots on request. In some community gardens, such as The Veggie Spot on Lynchburg’s Daniel’s Hill, neighborhood leaders came together on a vacant lot to garden and share the produce with fellow neighbors. The success of this garden, as all neighborhood gardens, is in the passion and “sweat-equity” of the people who live there.

Organizational considerations include agreement on methodology, design, physical layout, membership/labor (including regular watering and weeding), membership rules/fees, and distribution of produce, conflict resolution among participants, neighbors and vandalism. Horticultural decisions must, of course, address water, soil, sunlight, plant choice, security, pest control and all the other factors any garden requires.

The Spirit of Community
In addition to feeding the needy, community gardens serve a multitude of purposes, including educational, entrepreneurial, job training and therapy. The communal garden at the Pearson Cancer Center provides focus and hope for the future for patients and their families. The Awareness Garden provides scholarships to assist students whose lives have been impacted by cancer or who plan to work in a cancer-related field. And Lynchburg Grows has given much to our community through remarkably successful entrepreneurial and training programs for youth, disabled and low-income residents; running a food co-op; sending a food truck—or “Veggie Van”—out to take produce to food deserts and more.

The communal garden behind our new home in a condominium at The Woodstock is a peaceful sanctuary for residents to read a book, breathe fresh air and enjoy a sunny day, or give a pet dog some outdoor time. As a newcomer, I look forward to discovering what’s blooming this spring and getting to know my neighbors as we prepare to share our communal garden for Garden Day in Lynchburg on April 25th.

Community gardens are about proven food delivery systems, improving health, developing productive use of eyesore vacant lots or otherwise underutilized land, and building community spirit.

They can be a global effort to feed the starving or a local effort to bring fresh and nutritious produce to our neighbors—or a flower garden to attract pollinators and feed our souls. They’re about people coming together to take care of each other. It’s good to return to the old-fashioned way of doing things of my childhood.


by Susan Timmons

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