Nearly a decade ago, neighbors living near an abandoned elementary school in LeDroit Park in the District of Columbia described the area as a “thriving, open-air crack market.” But today, the once dangerous lot is flourishing with leafy greens, medicinal herbs and sour cherries.
“Our community has gentrified rapidly, and that creates some tension, but us being a safe place where people can interact is helping to facilitate conversation,” says Rachael Callahan, executive director of Common Good City Farm.
As she walks around the half-acre farm on paths of mulch that cover the old-school baseball field, she proudly points to ripening fig trees and red-veined rhubarb. “Our main goal is food production,” says Callahan, adding that at 5,000 pounds annually, the farm produces the most food for low-income neighborhoods in the District. In 2007, a community task force worked with the District to gain access to the land and transform it into the vibrant farm that attracts about 500 volunteers each season.
The nation’s capitol isn’t the only city lacking food security. More than 2.3 million people live in food deserts, or urban areas that do not have access to fresh produce, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This issue contributes to poor diet, obesity and illnesses like diabetes. Urban agriculture initiatives – producing food in a community for the community – are one solution working to relieve these problems and increase healthy living one garden at a time.
Common Good City Farm is one of thousands in the country to join the growing urban farming movement. With the help of financial incentives from state governments, urban farms have sprouted up from coast to coast, gaining support in major cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. From 2007 to 2013, 13 states and the District of Columbia passed legislation to authorize zoning for urban farms and create councils that promote local food economies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Why Local Matters to Your Health
In 2014, the USDA reported a total of 8,268 farmers markets nationwide, an increase of 76 percent since 2008. That increase was partly due to demand for more local food.
The mission of many urban farms, like Common Good City Farm, is to sell their harvested produce at farmers markets to low-income residents, Callahan says.
As a gardener and researcher of human rights for adequate food and nutrition, Anne Bellows, professor of food studies at Syracuse University, says these urban farms play an important role in retaining public health.
It’s important to understand and be aware of what the huge multitude of benefits are,” she says. “The food and the nutrition are important, but also very critical are benefits like access to green, quiet, safe space where other people are meeting and working – some place that is a refuge.”
In her research on the health benefits of urban agriculture, she found that a five- to 10-day lag time between produce transportation and consumption can result in a 30 to 50 percent loss of nutritional value. In other words, instead of buying tomatoes from a supermarket that imports them from hundreds of miles away, Bellows says urban farms provide a local option that give consumers better tasting, more nutritious food.
Urban farms also offer local education programs that teach community members how to cook vegetables to retain the most nutrients. On many of these farms, like Common Good City Farm, volunteers can earn a free bag of fresh produce every week by spending a few hours planting, weeding or harvesting at the farm.
Educating Kids on Healthy Choices
A connection to growing food makes all the difference for healthy lifestyles for city kids, Callahan says.
“We do a lot of exposing,” she says about the farm’s summer program that aims to show kids that tasty food doesn’t have to come out of a box. “Radishes, beets, turnips … kids are saying they’ve never seen or tasted these vegetables before.”
Urban gardener Ron Finley knows getting kids and teens to eat their vegetables isn’t easy. But since his 2013 TED Talk, he has worked in South Los Angeles to promote a culture that embraces gardening.
“What I’m trying to do is change the meaning of what a gangsta is. If you ain’t a gardener, you ain’t a gangster. It’s all about help building your community and not tearing it down,” he says.
Through talks he gives across the world, Finley has inspired many to start community gardens. He says it’s especially important to get children involved in the process of growing their own food.
“If you put the right seed in a child’s head at an early age, they get to see something positive, rather than something is negative,” he says. “It’s like a rose growing out of concrete.”
Growing a Community
Urban agriculture is about more than better nutrition from growing your own carrots and corn.
A 2013 University of California review of 78 urban agriculture studies and reports found the biggest impact from urban agriculture was on building social capital. The analysis reported that green spaces created safe places, which caused residents to feel a sense of pride and attachment to their neighborhoods.
“Growing in the country means you get to grow plants, but you don’t always get to grow a community,” says Patrick Crouch, program manager of Earthworks Urban Farm, which produces about 17,000 pounds of food annually in the lower east side of Detroit. Like Common Good City Farm, the farm is located in a low-income neighborhood and serves as a safe, green space for community members to take control over the food they eat.
“When you plant a seed, you grow that vegetable for yourself … that sense of agency, control over yourself, is deeply powerful,” Crouch says. ”Pretty quickly, [locals] find themselves thinking, ‘I can do this. What else can I do?’”
Besides promoting this sense of self-sustainability, Bellows’ research found that inner-city gardens help communities overcome social challenges and correlate with a decrease in crime, trash dumping, fires and other destructive behavior. The rise in urban agriculture is also associated with the social justice movement, she adds, since residents are attempting to establish more control over local food systems.
“Gardens are a strategy to address these structural conditions of inequality to say, ‘This is my space. I have a right and the dignity to adequate food and nutrition,’” she says.
Better for Your Mind and Body
In the simplest way, working on an urban garden can help your mind break away from your crowded commute and stressful day cooped up in the office.
“It’s a place to retreat to,” Bellows says, adding that gardens can reduce stress, boost happiness and have a positive effect on mental health. She recommends that health professionals consider incorporating healing gardens in their patients’ care to encourage exercise, nutrition and mental relaxation.
“Being around growing things has so many health benefits,” Callahan says. “Just be outdoors. That sounds so simple, but so many people go home after work and stay indoors now, [and] people are always tied to a screen.”
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