Today’s community gardens are descendants of a long tradition that dates back to the “Progressive Era,” from the 1890s through World War I, when well-intentioned women of the upper and middle classes considered it their duty to aid those less fortunate than themselves. Then, community gardens were seen as stepping-stones for the poor. They created jobs, educated, alleviated hunger, and served as a gateway for moral reform and assimilation. Gardens were planted largely by public service organizations in reclaimed vacant lots and at homes and schools, with the first recorded school garden established in 1891 — in Roxbury.These gardens gave way to the “war gardens” brought on by two World Wars. Home food gardens and canning were characterized as important tools for every citizen to help fight the enemy. The federal government even established the National War Garden Commission in 1917, supported with technical assistance by the Garden Club of America, and enlisted children into a “School Garden Army” in 1918. And during the Depression in the 1930s, gardens were an important stopgap, funded by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, until greater relief measures could be put in place.1
The 1970s ushered in a brand-new energy for community gardening. Unlike in previous eras, when gardening was promoted by civic or government agencies, Betsy Johnson says, “this time it was from the bottom up!” The gardens of this era were grassroots and community-driven. Cities were being sickened by urban flight and disinvestment, and the flight of grocery stores to the suburbs meant that immigrants seeking a better life in our cities couldn’t get healthy or culturally familiar foods. So, Johnson says, city dwellers began growing their own food. And these efforts grew into outspoken activist, nonprofit organizations that began to exert political and social influence. Community gardening became a movement. And this movement gained sufficient momentum in 1979 to create the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA).
Another sea change occurred in the mid-1990s, Johnson says. People began to see the broad benefits of gardens and wanted to use them to help specific populations. So community gardens started to become more top down and more programmatically driven. Instead of being started by community residents, now a nonprofit would decide to start a garden to help local youth, the hungry, or the homeless.
Johnson isn’t sure this is a good trend. The successful gardens are those started by gardeners, for gardeners. But the trend has grown more extreme, she observes. Now, as the food movement is gaining steam, even larger organizations want to jump on the bandwagon. Johnson says some corporations and large nonprofits think they can just start a community garden by throwing a little bit of money at a community. She gives the example of a corporation that wanted to start six community gardens, for $1,000 each. Johnson doesn’t have to vocalize the obvious questions: Does the community even want a garden? And where are the leaders who will lead and sustain this effort?
Another corporation was more savvy, in Johnson’s opinion. A community garden, she says, drawing from her decades of experience, takes time, dedication, and leadership. This corporation decided it would commit $10,000 per city just to support the leadership development needed to get a community garden off the ground. To develop this leadership for community gardening, the ACGA offers a two-day workshop. And the workshop is not about gardening — it’s about community organizing, meeting facilitation, fund-raising, coalition building. The workshop staff tell people, “If you’ve come here to learn about gardening, you’ve come to the wrong place.” The reason is simple: the difference between a successful community garden and an overgrown lot that was once a garden is leadership — leadership from within, from the ground up, not the top down.
Of course, community gardens are not the ultimate or only answer. But they are a shared community experience that often catalyzes a cascade of expanding community awareness and network of programs. Where it leads depends on the specific community culture and needs. For Nuestras Raíces it has led to youth and women’s empowerment and a farmer incubator. For Janus Youth it has led to a community store that will sell community garden produce and value-added products and provide jobs for local residents.
In all of these communities, it might be argued, a community garden may also be a stepping-stone to a new community culture — a culture that values food for more than the nutrition it contains. This emerging community culture sees food as an end and a means to a healthier community — a more diversified and locally sustainable economy, new job and small enterprise opportunities, better eating habits and nutrition, lower health costs, fewer days lost on the job — and to empowerment, self-esteem, and social justice. These may sound like heady claims, but projects around the nation are demonstrating their reality. “It’s not like a light bulb goes on for everyone,” Johnson says, “but a community garden is usually one of the first stepping-stones.”
Excerpt from Reclaiming Our Food © 2011 Storey Publishing
Text © 2011 by Tanya Denckla Cobb
Photography © 2011 by Jason Houston
All Rights Reserved
1. Iris Zippora Ahronowitz, “Rooting the Community, Growing the Future: Two Massachusetts Urban Agriculture Organizations and Their Social Impacts” (undergraduate thesis, Harvard University, November 2003), http://thefoodproject.org/research, citing Laura Lawson, “Urban-Garden Programs in the United States” (PhD dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 2000), and Joachim Wolshke-Bulmahn, “From the War Garden to the Victory Garden,” Landscape Journal 11, no 1 (1992): 57.
2. Michael Pollan, “Farmer in Chief,” New York Times Magazine, October 12, 2008, www.nytimes.com.