Hearty Harvests for Healthy Communities: A Look at Urban Agriculture and Community Gardening in America

By: Analiese Bush ’22

Environmental Studies major

Brief Description: An overview of community gardens, food insecurity and the rise of agriculture within city limits.

The following was written for Environmental Communication (ENV 294).

Photo by Greta Hoffman on Pexels.com

A sunny spring afternoon at Washington College’s Campus Garden.

Urban farming is capable not only of conserving precious green space but cultivating personal connections with neighbors and nature, too.

A deep navy light replaces the pitch-black night sky as the sun creeps over the Chestertown, Maryland horizon. Nestled roughly halfway between the headwaters of the Chester River and the body of the Chesapeake Bay, Chestertown is home to rich colonial history and the vibrant Washington College campus. As any standard college campus might, Washington College boasts academic centers, student residence halls, sports fields, a dining hall, and plenty of pavement. On this morning only one strip of asphalt is the focus as the navy sky pales to light blue and the first birds begin to chirp out their greetings.

The Campus Garden at Washington College stands on the remains of an old student parking lot. In the spring of 2012, Chesapeake Semester alumni inspired by their coursework sought to establish a garden at the school. Working with Building and Grounds, the students identified a small pocket of campus with no plans for future development.1 Through nine years of hard work and determination on the part of club members and volunteers, the impervious blacktop transformed into a veritable food forest and habitat source.

The ecological benefits of the refurbished site can be noted on early mornings. Birds of all sizes and species flit between a dozen fruit trees. Gentle splashes resonate through the space as startled frogs launch themselves into the pond. Early buds begin to peek out on the branches of apple, plum, and peach trees. Young rabbits scurry for cover behind the compost bins.

Unlike large estate gardens or expansive arboretums which have the luxury to exist away from the hustle and bustle of town life, WC’s Campus Garden thrives amid the challenges of light and noise pollution in Chestertown. Not even the glaring lights from the adjacent NAPA Auto Parts storefront or the raucous disturbances from the neighboring bar can discourage all wildlife from entering this space. Undeterred by the less-than-glamorous surroundings, the garden and its plants persevere, serving as an educational tool for the Campus Garden club and soothing green space for students.

Germination Across the Nation: The History and Evolution of Urban Agriculture

Despite the latest trendy connotations surrounding “urban agriculture,” or the modern application of traditional farming practices to growing spaces in suburbs and cities,2 growing plants and vegetables close to home is nothing new in America. Before the first European settlers arrived, Native Americans were learning to cultivate maize and collect seed for future plantings. Colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock mimicked the methodologies of local Native Americans to grow corn, beans, wheat, and squash to supplement their diets.3 Small plot cultivation continued throughout American history, appearing everywhere from enslaved peoples’ side yards to horticultural groups’ plots in major cities and, ultimately, the first botanical gardens and community gardens. Perhaps the most notable examples of urban agriculture are the victory gardens of World Wars I & II. Backyards, schoolyards and even rooftops were transformed under the National Victory Garden Program to supplement home front rations and feed US soldiers overseas.4

Currently, WC’s Campus Garden is just one of many plots being converted for cultivation across the country. In America alone roughly one third of households are participating in community garden plots or growing food in their own backyards. Since 2008, when economic collapse transformed the passive hobby into a critical lifeline,5 gardening has increased by 63% in younger households and by 38% in households with incomes under $35,000.6 This increase correlates with gardeners’ desires to grow more affordable food and, in many cases, more culturally appropriate food options that are frequently too expensive at grocery stores.7,8

Community gardening projects are taking root in abandoned lots ranging from San Jose, California to Baltimore, Maryland. A subset of urban agriculture, community gardening focuses on engaging community members with each other and with nature in areas frequently devoid of green space. Gardeners span all possible socioeconomic backgrounds and experience levels in each locale. To encourage increased vegetable consumption in low-income households in San Jose, the non-profit La Mesa Verde (LMV) has worked to educate and provide supplies to qualified households. An initial study of LMV’s efforts has shown that while 58% of their surveyed candidates claimed less than two years of gardening knowledge, they still saw an overall increase in vegetable intake per person when eating from their gardens.9

Communal and personal gardens are not solely devoted to cultivating fruits and vegetables. Garden spaces also nurture interpersonal relationships, helping neighbors to build community and trust.10 The perceived benefits of community gardening were very high among the survey participants in San Jose. Surveys revealed that backyard and community gardeners value “connecting with their neighbors by sharing produce… and knowledge about gardening” in addition to spending more time with family and friends.11 Getting outside, enjoying the fresh air, and doing moderate exercise appealed to all participants and encouraged return visits. 

Additionally, one surveyed resident said “that houses with gardens would look less abandoned,”12 which parallels the experiences of Baltimore-based community gardeners. Baltimore’s Community Greening Resources, an organization devoted to coordinating garden volunteers, sharing garden supplies, and connecting motivated gardeners throughout the city, noted that reclaiming abandoned lots made residents take greater pride in their neighborhood.13 Community gardens frequently replace vacated city lots where bygone apartment buildings and stores once stood. In sowing seeds, community gardeners are establishing more respect for their personal well-being and for the health of their community. 

Funding and Zoning and Coordinating, Oh My!: The Challenges of Urban Agriculture

Unfortunately, urban agriculture is not all sunshine and roses. For starters, gardens face the same challenges large-scale farming operations encounter. Maintaining soil health and viability, managing pest populations, overusing fertilizers, and meeting equipment expenses are obvious parallels.14 Furthermore, gardens and urban agriculture sites experience their own unique difficulties including member retention and land access. Due to zoning classifications and landowners’ changing interests, established gardens can be torn up if proprietors decide to develop.15

Take South Central Farm in Los Angeles, California, for instance. An impressive feat in urban agriculture, South Central Farm aimed to connect low-income residents with the environment and eliminate food insecurity in the community. Since 1992, bountiful crop rows, a lively on-site kitchen, and enthusiastic members filled the 14 verdant acres; the farm was a beacon of hope in an industrial wasteland.16 “America’s largest urban farm” flourished until 2006, when a local developer bought the land and bulldozed the beloved site.18 When their attempts to physically block the destruction failed, residents pursued legal action to have the green space reinstated and restored to its peak agricultural state. Fifteen years later, the previously bustling garden lies fallow as development plans continue to be delayed in the courts.19 The South Central Farmers Restoration Committee has taken up the fight in defending its growers’ rights to accessible garden space. Their website features updates on the legal battles, a vision statement for the future South Central Farm, and even new landscaping plans for the site.20

The farmers at South Central face challenges associated with growing food in an urban environment, in addition to tackling ownership, zoning, and environmental justice issues. Typically segregated to rural America, agriculture and food production have been refined to maximize yields from much larger fields than those found in urban areas. Equally challenging is the available research on the interactions between plants and animals in farming and gardening setups. Also known as agroecology, this area of study is still developing. Many questions are currently left unanswered, especially those concerning the impacts of urban and suburban lifestyles and their corresponding pollutants on crop yields. The lack of research from agroecology’s nascent stages makes it hard to objectively understand the ecological values of community gardens.21

Despite these challenges, local growers have found workarounds so effective that gardeners have increased productivity to the point where “crop yields can sometimes exceed national averages for commercial vegetable production.”22 Whereas working soil without proper amendments can lead to decreased productivity and loss of topsoil, gardens that incorporate composting into their efforts have access to regenerative organic material to refresh soil ecosystems. Pest populations can be managed with integrated pest management practices including increased habitat for predators of crop-damaging insects.23 Garden leaders and town organizers have navigated equipment access through setting up exchange networks and establishing borrowing relationships. In lieu of direct access to plots of land, cities and communities create networks like Baltimore’s Community Greening Resources to share ideas, tools, seeds, and manpower and to increase confidence in and support for gardening ventures.24 Aware of community gardening’s growing pains, participants still find their work rewarding and their gardens fulfilling.

Food Insecurity: Provisioning in a Pandemic

Even with the gardens in and around cities, Americans continue to struggle with food insecurity and meeting daily dietary requirements. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 10.5% of the population, or 35 million Americans, dealt with hunger on a daily basis. According to researchers at Northwestern University, approximately twice this number of people are currently facing the implications of food insecurity due to the pandemic.25 While dietary contributions may be slim and budgets remain tight, it is possible for greater growing knowledge and garden access to fill pantries. Among LMV participants, monthly food savings averaged around $92.26 Not every household needs gardening knowledge, since home and community gardeners frequently end up with a surplus of vegetables that can be donated to neighbors.

The 2015 Food Access Research Atlas, published by the United States Department of Agriculture, summarizes Kent County as a “low-income, low access area.”27 Using 2015 census data—including household incomes, locations of grocery stores, and vehicle access—the department concluded that Kent County is food insecure. The Research Atlas goes on to mark Chestertown as a “low vehicle access” area.28 More than 100 households in and around Chestertown do not have a personal vehicle or access to public transportation. These same households are all at least half a mile from the nearest grocery store which, with little to no transportation options, can make a typical grocery run exceedingly difficult. For being surrounded by swathes of agriculture, Chestertown wrestles to provide access to adequate food supplies for all of its residents.

Several community organizations already work to bridge this gap. The Kent County Food Pantry has been serving “people with disabilities, low-income elderly, children in low-income households, families with part-time or low-paying jobs [and] unemployed men and women” since 1991 and strives to provide recipients with adequate non-perishable foods and personal care products.29 The pantry also runs the Backpack Program which provides weekend meals to local public-school children on free or reduced price meal plans.

 During the COVID-19 pandemic the pantry saw a decrease in food distribution. While pantry communications urge all community members seeking food to drop in, total food distributed dropped from 112,157 pounds to roughly 95,356 pounds.30 Program Director Sue Caswell notes that numbers may have decreased due to the outpouring of support from other community members at the start of the pandemic in 2020.31 Additionally, more food distribution groups have cropped up with the hope of making sure no one went hungry due to furloughs and quarantines. Different groups run door-to-door drop off services for individuals who do not have adequate transportation to get to in-person pickup spots.32

The food pantry has also benefitted from its own groundswell of support in the last year. Despite decreased distribution from their own locations, the pantry’s income has more than doubled in the past year thanks to generous donors. With the extra income the food pantry has been able to support the newer food distribution groups through underwriting costs or outright purchasing food staples for these partners.33

To Seed or Not To Seed?

An excellent start to filling Chestertown’s shortages, the Kent County Food Pantry and its partners cannot meet all of the town’s needs on its own. Community and backyard gardens can introduce the benefits of locally grown fruits and vegetables into more households’ diets. Established gardens serve as open-air classrooms where students of all ages can learn about the plants and animals they consume and the impacts of food production on the environment. With small gardeners around America finding great satisfaction with their yields, small plot gardening can take root for the greater good in Chestertown as well.

Gardens do not have to be exclusive or pretentious. In fact, the mere presence of a garden fosters a sense of collaboration helping to integrate, rather than segregate, communities from all backgrounds. In the Campus Garden, students from all majors, minors, and interests come together for weekly workdays. Enjoying the fresh air and getting some dirt under their fingernails, students can blow off steam, share opinions on course selections, and get to know each other in a dynamic environment. Furthermore, the Campus Garden has flourished through the donations of equipment, plants, seeds, and even building materials from staff, faculty, and Chestertown residents.

Asian pear blossoms begin to bloom as the weather warms up in Chestertown.

Inherently a very hands-on activity, gardening connects its participants with their environment, be it urban or rural, and educates them about where their food comes from. There is nothing more rewarding than going home with a basket full of the day’s harvest and knowing that at least one portion of your dinner is the result of your hard work and patience. Gardening and small-scale cultivation have brought Americans together for centuries, so why not turn to it now?

Back behind Prince George House in the North Commons of WC, a biting chill settles around the petite orchard in the Campus Garden. Several small sparrows chase each other, stopping to rest temporarily on the branches of the peach tree. Fluffy brown feathers puff out, insulating them from the last week of winter. The blazing sun crawls slowly behind the humming dormitories and washes the sturdy mint sprouts and tender pear buds in a bright orange glow. Early squash and celery sprouts jockey to be the first in line to greet the morning sun, as carrots, onions, and Jerusalem artichokes creep ever deeper into the ground. Tired from a long afternoon of clearing out detritus from the beds, student volunteers kick the mud off of their boots and trek back across campus to dinner.

Environmental fads may come and go but one thing is for certain: everyone has to eat. We must create a more durable food system to feed the future. Is there better place to start than in our own backyards?

Bee boxes painted by students soak up the last rays of sun.

Photo Credit: Page 7, Map: USDA Food Access Research Atlas

Additional Photos by Analiese Bush.

Notes:

  1. Brill, S. (personal communication, March 16, 2021).
  2. Warnes, K. (2019). Urban agriculture. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
  3. Smithsonian Gardens. Timeline of American Garden History. Smithsonian Institution. /
  4. Warnes, K. (2019).
  5. Driscoll, S. (2019). Gardening. Salem Press Encyclopedia.
  6. Algert, S., Diekmann, L., Renvall, M., & Gray, L. (2016). Community and home gardens increase vegetable intake and food security of residents of San Jose, California. California Agriculture, 70(2), 77-82. b
  7. Ibid.
  8. Gregory, M., Leslie, T., & Drinkwater, L. (2016). Agroecological and social characteristics of New York city community gardens: contributions to urban food security, ecosystem services and environmental education. Urban Ecosystems, 19(2), 763-794.
  9. Algert, S., Diekmann, L., Renvall, M., & Gray, L. (2016).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Krones, S. & Edelson, S. (2016). Building Gardens, Rebuilding a City: Baltimore’s Community Greening Resource Network. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development, 1(3).
  14. Gregory, M., Leslie, T., & Drinkwater, L. (2016).
  15. Krones, S. & Edelson, S. (2016).
  16. South Central Farm: Cultivating Resistance Since 1992. About Us. South Central Farm.
  17. Feinstein, M. (2018 September 24). #SouthCentralFarmWatch—And What it Means for L.A. and our Planet. City Watch.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. South Central Farm: Cultivating Resistance Since 1992. SCF Vision. South Central Farm.
  21. Gregory, M., Leslie, T., & Drinkwater, L. (2016).
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Krones, S. & Edelson, S. (2016).
  25. Silva, C. (2020, September 27). Food insecurity in the U.S. by the numbers. NPR.
  26. Algert, S., Diekmann, L., Renvall, M., & Gray, L. (2016).
  27. Economic Research Service. (2020, December 18). Food Access Research Atlas. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Kent Food Pantry. About. Kent County Food Pantry.
  30. Caswell, S. (personal communication, March 25, 2021).
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Gregory, M., Leslie, T., & Drinkwater, L. (2016).
  35. Algert, S., Diekmann, L., Renvall, M., & Gray, L. (2016).

References:

Algert, S., Diekmann, L., Renvall, M., & Gray, L. (2016). Community and home gardens increase vegetable intake and food security of residents in San Jose, California. California Agriculture70(2), 77–82. b

Driscoll, S. (2019). Gardening. Salem Press Encyclopedia. http://search.ebscohost.com.washcoll.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=100259092&site=eds-live

Economic Research Service. (2020, December 18). Food Access Research Atlas. US Department of Agriculture.

Feinstein, M. (2018 September 24). #SouthCentralFarmWatch—And What it Means for L.A. and our Planet. City Watch. https://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/2016-01-01-13-17-00/los-angeles/16270-southcentralfarmwatch-and-what-it-means-for-la-and-our-planet

Gregory, M., Leslie, T., & Drinkwater, L. (2016). Agroecological and social characteristics of New York city community gardens: contributions to urban food security, ecosystem services, and environmental education. Urban Ecosystems19(2), 763–794. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-015-0505-1

Kent Food Pantry. About. Kent County Food Pantry. https://kentfoodpantry.org/ – about

Krones, S. & Edelson, S. (2016). Building Gardens, Rebuilding a City: Baltimore’s Community Greening Resource Network. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development1(3). https://doi-org.washcoll.idm.oclc.org/10.5304/jafscd.2011.013.005

Silva, C. (2020, September 27). Food insecurity in the U.S. by the Numbers. NPR. https://www.npr.org/series/812054919/the-coronavirus-crisis

Smithsonian Gardens. Timeline of American Garden History. Smithsonian Institution. https://gardens.si.edu/collections/archives/timeline-of-american-garden-history/

South Central Farm: Cultivating Resistance Since 1992. About Us & SCF Vision. South Central Farm. https://www.southcentralfarm.org/

Warnes, K., PhD. (2019). Urban agriculture. Salem Press Encyclopedia.

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