With nearly 47 million Americans living under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, access to affordable fresh food is still a daily struggle for some, especially for those living in so-called food deserts, areas with limited access to healthy fruits and vegetables.
But in cities across the country, where infrastructure is crumbling and vacant spaces are becoming more abundant, community members are mobilizing to turn those abandoned and lifeless spaces into urban gardens, helping to breathe not only new life but also new opportunities back into their communities.
In Detroit, residents have organized an urban-garden initiative called Keep Growing Detroit in an effort to promote a food-sovereign city where the majority of fruits and vegetables that residents consume are grown within the city’s limits.
Serving more than 1,400 urban gardens throughout Detroit, KGD provides members of the community, both children and adults, with the ability to volunteer, intern and be employed by the program. KGD is helping to create a strong sense of community through teamwork and collaboration among garden participants.
“No one ever used to be in this part of town, but now it feels good to walk by every day and see people doing something in the garden,” said Rhonda Jones, who volunteers at KGD. “Every day someone is here.”
Although the opportunities with urban gardens are endless and the effects of the gardens are largely positive, it is important to note that there are many problems and challenges that come with maintaining these spaces. One main issue is finding the funding to keep these spaces maintained—specifically funding for supplies and equipment.
“A lot of people come out and help do something in the garden. Not everyone knows how to garden, but we get people coming out, picking weeds, helping fertilize, stuff like that,” said Kendra Brown, a volunteer at one of KGD’s urban gardens. “Donations from churches and organizations also help. Everyone is involved.”
Many urban gardens exist in an effort to uplift and revitalize communities, but some gardens can also provide economic opportunities. In Atlanta the Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, or TLW, strives to train men and women in urban agriculture—the art, science and business of providing food in a city environment. Urban agriculture is a growing business opportunity fueled by a shortage of new farmers and a demand for better-quality food.
In some communities, urban gardens can even reduce crime. In areas where the crime rate is high or there is an issue with juvenile crime, many social workers and mentors in these communities establish urban gardens as projects that young people can have as their own—providing a positive distraction from other neighborhood ills.
Because TLW sits in the middle of Atlanta’s most urban and historic area, it functions as a refuge to those in the community. It offers a year-round farmers market, giving residences access to fresh, affordable produce.
“All that used to be here was an old parking lot with a bunch of rocks and weeds, and we turned it into our own garden with flowers and trees,” said Noah Clark, a garden volunteer.
Keep Growing Detroit and Truly Living Well are just two examples of the hundreds of urban gardens across the nation that are serving as catalysts for change in communities across economic, social and political boundaries.
“I think it helps people feel like they have an actual hand in the community when they come out and work in it and produce something,” said Michael Thompson, a frequent shopper at the TLW farmers market. “People love to see their efforts pay off. I think these gardens are ways people can see their hard work paying off and benefiting others.”
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Samantha Callender is a multimedia journalist whose work appears in MadameNoire, Her Agenda and USA Today College.