Grow a community garden culture

Michelle Book | CEO, Food Bank of Iowa

The Idea: Using a public-private partnership to establish a community garden culture would help solve food insecurity issues, improve neighborhoods, reduce crime, bring people closer to food production and build community.

My family didn’t have much when I was a kid, but I don’t remember going to bed hungry. My father was a proficient hunter and fisherman. My mother sowed a gigantic garden and labored summer and fall to preserve the abundance. As children, we shucked corn, pinched bugs and picked beans.  

Together, my family ate from a bountiful table. You see, my parents were children of the victory garden era, raised with a “grow your own, feed your own” mentality. Today, with our fast-paced existence, few families garden and numerous families rely on prepared carbohydrate-rich and calorie-dense foods.  

Many consumers perceive fruits and vegetables as too expensive. Yet others are concerned about possible contaminants from commercially grown produce and the environmental impact of consuming food produced half a world away. And most of us are far removed from our agricultural roots and wouldn’t know a plumb line from a cherry tree.

Solution? In this community where collaboration is king, surely we can come together to ensure all families have access to seeds, black dirt and the knowledge to produce and preserve delicious and nutritious food for their table. I envision a community garden culture that celebrates tiny edible street beautification planters on street corners, small plots of vegetables within food desert neighborhoods, and large “greening” projects, such as orchards, to preserve natural areas.

Metro residents would benefit substantially from a committed and robust community garden movement. Today, between Des Moines and West Des Moines, there are a few hundred plots within a handful of neighborhood gardens, which city parks and rec departments do a good job of managing. Organizations, such as Eat Greater Des Moines and Iowa State University Extension, support and promote the concept. It’s a start.

What we lack is a large-scale, metrowide public-private partnership committed to making garden space accessible by every resident with an interest. What we lack is a culture of community gardening. Check out the Portland, Ore., community gardening scene if you doubt me.

There is much to gain. In addition to providing ample fresh produce, a vibrant shared garden experience contributes to a sense of community, connection to the environment, and an opportunity for neighborhood improvement. Community gardens improve users’ health through providing a venue for exercise and increased fresh vegetable consumption. Community gardens also bring urban gardeners in touch with the source of their food and break down isolation by creating a social community.

Community gardens lead to other social benefits, such as broadening food production knowledge and providing safer living spaces. Cities with active community gardens experience less crime and vandalism. Community gardens are an increasingly popular method of changing the urban built environment in order to promote health and wellness. Community gardens could be found behind baseball fields, in neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and on residential housing grounds.

The effort could be organized as a nonprofit enterprise offering assistance to low-income families, engaging children’s groups and supporting community organizations to develop and grow their own gardens. The effort could provide classes, networking opportunities, seeds and access to basic gardening equipment.

The effort could be a dynamic public-private partnership leveraging the momentum of Keep Iowa Beautiful, Iowa Healthiest State, Hunger Free Polk and Dallas, Waterworks Park Renovation, Eat Greater Des Moines, and ISU Extension. Just imagine that!

The Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden Program was created by the Austin, Texas, City Council in 2009 and would serve as a likely model for what Des Moines could accomplish. Their purpose is to establish a single point of contact and streamline the process for establishing community gardens and sustainable urban agriculture on city land.

This organization seeks to connect the dots between all the efforts that make up Austin’s local food system, building partnerships around local food production and food security. Its broader goals include providing leadership, education, policy analysis and project development support for the city of Austin’s community-based food system.  

If Portland and Austin can do it and do it well, Des Moines can build upon a pretty solid existing foundation to do it even better. >