I’ve always loved community gardens. I think it’s because they come in so many shapes and sizes. You can find them tucked into the oddest places like a pie-shaped city block, on the apron of an airport runway, or in the middle of a forgotten vacant lot. Due perhaps to my peculiar landscape aesthetic, I was very happy to give this year’s keynote at the 38th Annual American Community Gardening Association Conference in my old hometown of Hartford, Conn.

Almost 200 people gathered from across the country to explore and share the near-infinite ways we have contrived to cultivate “a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil,” to use Abe Lincoln’s words. The workshops were as intriguing as the enthusiasm was palpable as the variations were fantastical! So, let me share an excerpted version of the keynote I gave to these noble gardeners, all of whom had the best dirt I’ve ever seen lodged ‘neath their nails.

Hartford, Connecticut – July 28, 2017 – ACGA Annual Conference

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 use my time today to explore three myths that are part of the community gardening conversation.

Myth Number One: Community gardening nurtures human tranquility, a oneness with nature, and a reduction in stress. Myth Number Two: urban gardens and farms will feed a hungry world and create a slew of good-paying jobs to boot. Myth Number Three: These gardeners and farmers exist in such a singular state of purity and righteousness that they can float above the political fray eschewing any serious engagement 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 the Watkinson Community Garden. I loved going there because the 100 or so plots adjoined meadows and the Park River that were home to cardinals, finches, orioles, bluebirds, and swallows. The river banks were alive with muskrats, snakes, and the occasional skunk. Deer would sometimes vault the garden’s fence to dine on a few heads of lettuce.

But early one June, a gardener discovered a large woodchuck had taken up residence inside the garden and was munching on everything he could get his little paws on. The men mobilized immediately with the precision of a military unit. Three volunteers went on reconnaissance to locate each of the interloper’s points of access and egress where they stood watch with hoes and shovels at the ready. The platoon commander, carrying a gasoline canister, found the chuck’s main entrance to his den 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 twenty-feet into the air, which threw the gardener/warrior onto his back. The singed, but still agile chuck darted for his life from one of his exits only to be greeted by shovel-wielding gardeners whose tools – plowshares now turned into weapons – soon dispatched the poor fellow in a most unsavory manner.

Murder and mayhem in the community garden; the finches and bluebirds sought refuge in a nearby housing project; man’s dominance over nature was restored, but 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.” Our children are over-scheduled and over-stimulated by “jiu-jitsu lessons, clarinet practice, and Advance Placement tutoring,” and their iPhones are surgically attached to their wrists. No wonder, according to the same article, that 36% of girls and 26% of boys between the ages of 13 and 17 suffer from anxiety disorder. 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.

If we’re going to boast about the paradisiacal qualities of community gardens, we need to ensure that they live up to our hopes. Now more than ever, the world needs to slow down and 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, particularly low wages. The stark facts are these:

  • The U.S. leads the developed world in income inequality
  • The top 1% took in 19% of all income while the 10% took in 48%
  • 70% of all private wealth is held by the top 10%while the 1% control 35%

These numbers are hideous and won’t be altered by community gardens nor anything other than a radical restructuring of our tax code. They need our immediate attention, and I hope the voices of community gardeners join those who hunger for social and economic equality.

My colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future looked at the benefits associated with urban agriculture for a bill that Senator Debbie Stabenow was working on. They combed through the literature, and based on the evidence, they found that urban agriculture:

  • Significantly increased social capital, community well-being, and civic engagement
  • Provides a number of ecosystem services to urban areas, e.g. one pound of food production displaces two pounds of carbon
  • Supports participants’ physical and psychosocial health
  • Supplements household food security
  • Is associated with increased property values
  • Offers opportunities for skills development, workforce training, and supplemental income (these benefits normally require subsidies to achieve).

In sum, however, no large-scale job creation benefits could be demonstrated.

That being said, there is evidence that gardens are associated with obesity reduction and better health outcomes, and reduce crime and municipal maintenance costs. Even though community gardens and small urban farms are not big food contributors, 30% of US agriculture production occurs in metro areas.

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

Urban agriculture and community gardens may not feed a hungry world, but they certainly can feed a hungry spirit and a hunger for both natural and human connection. As the world becomes less food secure every day, growing food in unconventional places will no longer be thought of as a nicety, like a flowerbox of petunias slung from a brownstone’s windowsill, but as a necessity born out of the looming realization that there will be 9 billion of us to feed by 2050. At the very least, one can think of urban farming as an insurance policy with a very small monthly premium.

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.”

By establishing a system of publicly financed education and technical support for agriculture, and for what would later become the epi-center of food-consumer interests, Lincoln joined the ideals of American self-reliance to the principle that our public interests could be advanced through a partnership with government.

Fast forward to the present and we see a plethora of food policy activity at the local, state, and federal levels of government. While I don’t necessarily want government to lead in the area of food, I do want two things. The first is to institutionalize government’s role in ensuring access to healthy and affordable food for all. In other words, food should be recognized as one critical government function. The second thing I want is for government to collaborate with private sector partners to ensure that communities, states, tribal organizations, and the nation are meeting their food-related goals.

It was for these two reasons that we established the Hartford Advisory Commission on Food Policy, a food policy council which is now the second longest continuously operating food policy council out of 250 nationwide.

You may have heard last year in Cleveland how their food policy council played a critical role in revamping the city’s zoning practices to support community gardening, allowing for the backyard raising of chickens and bees, providing financial support for food-related start-ups including urban farms, and changing the city’s food procurement practices to give premium pricing to food produced in or near the city. 

Los Angeles has added yet another dimension to municipal support for urban farming. Their food policy council was instrumental in passing 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, especially lower income ones. But L.A. also sees this change as a way to expand green spaces, reduce blight, promote social cohesion and support economic opportunities. Here again, we see a multitude of purposes and outcomes enabled through public policy.

At the federal level, USDA’s Community Food Project (CFP) grant program has funded around $100 million in community food work since its inception in 1996. I don’t have the numbers, but I know that much of that spending has gone to a wide variety of community agriculture projects. It would be in the best interests of AGCA and its members to ensure the continued funding of CFP.

After policy, of course, comes collaboration. Working with other stakeholders whether through a food policy council or another collaborative mechanism is essentially how you secure more policy benefits. No matter how important you are or how necessary your organization’s projects, little will change in your communities unless you collaborate fiercely with those who share your larger purpose of promoting food security, sustainable food systems, and healthy eating.

I know that what I’m proposing isn’t easy. Building collaborations with people you don’t normally work with, connecting the dots within a complicated food system, and engaging public policy at all levels are hard work and can make us very uncomfortable. But as my therapist told me, embracing your inner discomfort is a necessary precursor to change.

When we do interact with others, we need to have a clear message. Here are a few ideas I’d ask you to consider. First, community gardening, urban agriculture, and all of their amazing variations need a new name – something that conveys both the spirit of non-conventional food production, is all encompassing, and bridges geographic differences.

Second, I think we do our cause a disservice when we overstate the benefits of community gardening. it’s easy to wax poetic – I do it all the time. Gardeners aren’t shy about expressing their love for plants, veggies, flowers or the implacable joy of gardening. In our writings, reports, and public testimony, however, we’d be well-served by reining in some of our exuberance in favor of a more-sober rendition of community gardening’s cornucopia of good outcomes. To that end, let’s lean on the data, and let’s encourage more research that looks at the numerous values associated with community gardening.

My message boils down to this:

  • The most important word in “community gardening” is “community”
  • Build on the good work you are all doing, but link arms with others recognizing that none of you have all the answers
  • Engage government; the people and the policymakers must be on the same page. This is what they call democracy, and as a citizen, that is what I signed up for
  • If you don’t belong to a food policy council, join one. If you don’t have one, start one
  • Create a message that unifies your work and speaks to the proven benefits of community gardening
  • Poverty is the cause of hunger; the time has come to work toward the end of income and wealth inequality.

Thank you for listening, and thank you for your good work. Go ACGA!