On Growing Healthier Kids and Communities, in the Garden

*published online by MN2020 here: http://www.mn2020.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={668FD81A-DD52-4D62-891A-9E3CA6507327}&DE=

When I first heard the term “community garden,” I pictured a big, open plot in the middle of a neighborhood—a large garden accessible to, and maintained by, any and all members of the community who would like to help maintain it.  In fact, Community Gardens take many forms, and the most common form is the allotment garden: a piece of land divided into plots that are then rented out to individual gardeners or small groups. Of the communal variety I initially imagined, there are only a handful in the Twin Cities. All types of community gardens can offer multiple and similar benefits to their surrounding communities, but some arguably deliver more benefits more effectively than others.

The three-year old Loring Schoolyard Garden, an integral component of a program called Kids Cook Classroom, is a novel concept and an effective model in face of the difficulties that plague many Twin Cities community gardens.

Twin Cities Community Gardens and Their Challenges

GardenWorks, an organization established in 2005 to document and promote community gardens in the Twin Cities area, has thus far counted about two hundred community gardens (of all structures) in the area.  Many got their start on vacant lots in the 1980’s and beginning of the 1990’s when property values were in decline.  However, with the property market boom of the last decade or so, most of these gardens have been consumed by development projects.  Those that survived face mounting financial pressure due to government budget cuts.  The three basic resources necessary to sustain a community garden are land, labor and water, and the cost of leasing land is on the rise along with the water bills.  These increasing costs can make it difficult for garden organizers to stay afloat, much less afford other important resources like tools, seeds, compost, soil and hoses.  According to the Twin Cities Community Gardens Sustainability Report published in 2005, “Taxes can also be burdensome to community gardeners, and do not make sense when garden sites are open for the entire local community to enjoy.”

For almost thirty years, Twin Cities community gardens were able to obtain liability insurance and reduced-price leases through the Sustainable Resource Center’s Urban Lands Program.  However, this program was canceled in 2002.  In 2004, the Twin Cities Greening Coalition (TCGC) decided to develop a plan for sustaining community gardens.  The Sustainability Plan Final Report, cited above, recommended that a Community Garden Association be established to collect data on community gardens, promote information-sharing among gardeners across the city and generally assist community gardens in any way possible.

GardenWorks was formed in response to this recommendation, but of course, many of the difficulties identified in the report persist.  In addition to financial burdens, problematic trends that GardenWorks hopes to tackle include a lack of information resources for new garden organizers and the narrow leadership base of many community gardens.  To remain sustainable in the long-term, most gardens need a larger core group of committed volunteers and more diversified leadership among volunteers.

The Loring Schoolyard Garden

The garden at Loring School is an example of one of those few communal community gardens.  Its story begins with a program called Kid’s Cook, an optional after-school cooking class that volunteers Robin Krause, Starla Krause and Susan Telleen started teaching five years ago at Loring Elementary School in Minneapolis.  Eager to help students understand and appreciate the origins of food in this age of pre-packaged, processed meals, they focused on the basics of home cooking from scratch.  Children learned how to cook a chicken, roast vegetables, bake bread and make a variety of healthy foods like vegetable stock for soup and curry.

Two years into Kid’s Cook, they the three program leaders converted the school courtyard into a modest garden where the children could grow their own ingredients.  Now in its third year, the garden has expanded to include many more plants and the beginnings of an orchard.  Robin, Starla and Susan have always taken on the bulk of responsibility for garden maintenance, but as the program has grown, so has community and student involvement.  The children contributed after-school for the first two years of the garden, and they were encouraged to volunteer over the summer.  Just last year, the after-school gardening and cooking classes were incorporated into classroom curriculum in the form of a program dubbed Kids Cook Classroom.

Benefits: The Case for Community Gardens

Kid’s Cook Classroom and the Loring Schoolyard Garden are delivering on many of the benefits often associated with community gardens.  The first of such benefits, unsurprisingly, is building a sense of community—or, instilling in people a sense of ownership over and loyalty to the community that can in turn lead to more active participation in local politics or just personal benefits in the form of feeling more connected.  Community gardens are said to promote this sense of community by getting people involved in a joint project (or similar projects in shared space), allowing people to expand their circle of local friends and generally increasing the amount of interaction between community members.

Also unsurprisingly, advocates of community gardens cite neighborhood beautification and the fostering of greater appreciation of nature as benefits.  For those gardens that include or emphasize food production, advocates also talk about nutrition benefits that come with “access to nutritionally rich foods” and an increased awareness of the natural forms and origins of food.  Though enthusiasts have long linked these nature- and nutrition-related benefits to better physical and mental health for community members, only more recently have scientific and systematic studies in the field of “people-plant interactions” yielded a solid stock of concrete evidence that community gardens can have positive side effects for human well-being.  Some “background theories” related to people-plant interactions suggest that gardens and other natural settings reduce stress by offering our systems a break from “the noise, movement, and visual complexity of the modern world.”  In The Biophilia Hypothesis, Edward Wilson and Stephen Kellert discuss the ways in which human evolutionary history may in fact necessitate human interaction with nature.

Numerous studies support such hypotheses and highlight the potential impact of Community Gardens on physical and mental health.  For example, a study of prison inmates showed that those who have views of greenery from their cells tend to need less medical care and report fewer physical problems than those who have no view of nature.  In a 1990 study of cancer patients after they left the hospital, those who agreed to take part in activities that brought them into regular contact with nature improved more rapidly than those who did not.

It is also well known that vegetation “restore[s] oxygen to the air and reduce[s] air pollution” while helping control the surrounding temperature.  It stands to reason, then, that the more vegetation in a community, the greater the health benefits for its members.  Greening could help mitigate asthma, headaches and other health problems.

Where to Go from Here?

The problem with many of these celebrated benefits of community gardening is that they rely on one or both of two key assumptions: first, that enough people will participate in the garden to render it a significant community-building and health-boosting arena, and second, that the garden itself is big enough to have a noticeable impact on factors like air quality and access to nutritious food.  How many people can these gardens really affect, and how deeply?  This question might well be the crux of the problem when it comes to winning public sector support for Community Gardens—support that can contribute significantly to their success and sustainability. The City of Chicago, for example, has a green space preservation fund.  Zoning laws can also be made more or less favorable to the preservation of green spaces.  Boston has a zoning code designed specifically to protect community gardens.

Unfortunately, even with studies to back up the positive effects of people-plant interactions, making the case for community gardens cannot be as easy as making the case for something that produces more measurable effects and for which participation is more assured.  People can generally be expected to make use of a well-placed hardware store or supermarket because everybody has to run errands.  But it may be hard to believe that many people will take the time to leave home for gardening.  Beyond neglect, downright disrespect for community gardens might also be a concern. In short, with nobody assigned the decisive responsibility that comes from exclusive ownership, any common space could easily be subject to tragedy.  It is therefore difficult to justify a real need for public support for community gardens in light of tightly stretched government budgets.

Enter Kid’s Cook Classroom and the Loring Schoolyard Garden.  Together, they offer a model way to deliver significant benefits of community gardening with minimal need for government support.  True, all community gardens need a great deal of support from volunteers and from whatever other entities can help assure the provision of land, labor and water.  But in the case of the Loring Schoolyard Garden, that support has come from self-sustaining fundraisers and from Loring School, not to mention the work of the three program coordinators.

The garden does not depend for survival on the often fatal expense of leasing, renting or otherwise obtaining and holding onto its land because Loring School acts as its fiscal sponsor by donating the use of its schoolyard rent-free.  For other expenses, the garden is self-sustaining; students use the food they grow to prepare meals for fundraisers and for other community events where they offer homegrown products for sale.  They are able to raise about ten thousand dollars a year.

Moreover, the design of the program ensures maximal benefits by targeting children, engaging a large group of people and focusing on food.  Involving children as part of their school curriculum minimizes the risk that the garden will be used only by a select group of community members who have extra time and happen to be interested in gardening, thus ensuring that benefits are significantly wide-reaching.  The school setting is conducive to cultivating new garden enthusiasts because it exposes children to an activity they might otherwise have little chance to explore.  Although Robin, Starla and Susan still take on the bulk of the organizing work, the program design helps them avoid the most serious hazards of a narrow leadership base by spreading out the burden of actual garden work and engaging a large (and constantly refreshing) group of potential future garden leaders.

The program, by integrating gardening with cooking and community-building, does a better job than stand-alone gardens of promoting healthy habits, greater appreciation for nature and community engagement. Because the Loring Schoolyard garden is part of a process that includes using food from the garden for cooking, the health benefits of access to nutritionally-rich foods and increased knowledge of natural foods are far more assured than they would be if the garden were not tied deliberately to cooking and learning.  Children are able to directly see where their food comes from and how to use it so that they can understand (and taste) the difference between home-grown and processed food.  Likewise, because the meals and dishes that students learn to prepare are in turn frequently used to bring the neighborhood community together for events, the oft-cited benefit of promoting a sense of community connectedness is also more assured than if the garden were not part of a program that includes purposeful community-building.

Perhaps most importantly, all these lessons learned in the garden are particularly effective when embedded in the school setting because children, still in their formative years, are best able to absorb what they learn as a set of lifelong skills and values.

There is no easy or clear-cut way to export the Kids Cook Classroom program, but it can definitely serve as a model for a school with some extra yard space and a group of community volunteers with a passion for gardening and organizing.  It is a model worth serious consideration as a long-term investment to produce a healthier and more community-conscious future generation.

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