Growing Garden Cities, in D.C. and Beyond

It’s a sadly common misconception that the local food movement is elitist. That’s why I was excited to hear about Jeremy Smith’s new book Growing a Garden City. It tells the stories of how first graders, single moms, and homeless folks have benefited from community gardens. At his book tour event last Tuesday at Busboys and Poets (an awesome D.C. social justice cafe), Jeremy pushed back against the idea that local food can’t be for everyone.

Thankfully, Jeremy’s an awesome spokesperson. Although I was a bit suspicious at first upon seeing a Powerpoint presentation, he used the screen to show us photos of stacks of multi-colored tomatoes and small children chomping on dirty carrots. Respectively delicious and hilarious.

He started off his talk by describing his hometown of Missoula, Montana, a city of 70,000 people in a “valley surrounded by rolling peaks.” Although they have urban coffeeshops and trendy boutiques, one in five residents live in poverty. Despite the fact that they have fewer than 120 days a year in the growing season, he said, “local organic food is normal for many, not special.”

This incongruity is the result of hard work and purposeful organizing by community members. Together, they formed Garden City Harvest, a collaborative of a dozen community gardens and agricultural organizations. As a result, they’ve been able to create what Jeremy called “Agriculture Supported Community.” While Community Supported Agriculture is a familiar concept to most foodies, Agriculture Supported Community occurs when urban agriculture projects support the social and economic health of a neighborhood or city.

Of the many he gave, my favorite Agriculture Supported Community example was the synergy between two different programs: Youth Harvest and the Mobile Market. Youth Harvest is a program that transfers the idea of wilderness therapy for troubled teens to agriculture. Rather than sending kids to juvenile detention, they work on urban farms, growing food and benefiting their community. Along with working for a living, they are able to learn useful skills and actively receive therapy. Through this program, the kids came up with the idea of the Mobile Market, a moving farmers’ market for the home-bound in their community. Through this program, the teens are not only able to bring senior citizens discounted fresh produce, but also establish relationships with them. The seniors receive companionship; the teens receive mentoring. As Jeremy said, “You have literally the most vulnerable members of the community offering a service to each other.” Other projects include a church-run garden for homeless families, a “Volunteer for Veggies” program, and an environmental education project that connects university and elementary school students.

With this book, Jeremy hopes to empower other communities to create programs like the ones that have helped so many people in Missoula. Of course, much of this activity is already going on in D.C. He named off a number of great programs in D.C., like D.C. Central Kitchen’s Fresh Start, a program that teaches ex-offenders how to run a catering company while serving kids in D.C. Public Schools fresh produce.

To maximize the “Agriculture Supported Community” aspect of a project, he recommends “Maximize the amount of community in your community garden.” In particular, he recommends including features that go beyond food – playgrounds, benches, and shady areas where people can rest.

Jeremy ended his speech on an encouraging high note. Acknowledging the hard work of everyone gathered in the room, he said, “We’re proving that good food, good life, and the community of a garden city is available to all.” Indeed, it is.

[ Cross-posted on D.C. Food for All ]

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