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Community Gardens: A Solution to Growing Food Insecurity in the Face of Degradation

By: Denali Selent

Almost 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Yet with each coming year, people are finding it increasingly difficult to meet their daily nutritional needs. In 2018, nearly 40 million Americans alone were food insecure, meaning they lacked reliable access to a sufficient quantity of food. And this dilemma isn’t disappearing anytime soon, as experts fear that climate change and environmental degradation will only exacerbate rates of food insecurity in the future. Our growing population puts great strain on our food system- a system built on unsustainable agricultural practices that contribute to soil and land degradation, further hindering our ability to produce food. 

In addition, insufficient food quantity often couples with poor food quality. Many people- predominantly people of color or low-income families in urban areas- can’t find or afford fresh produce and healthy food choices. However, in these times of strife, communities are coming together to implement creative new solutions to their food challenges. Urban community gardens are one solution in particular that have revolutionized the food scene in Detroit and show promising potential for other urban areas.

When it comes to community gardening, the city of Detroit is “planting” the way at an unprecedented pace. Gardens of all different shapes and sizes are popping up at schools and community centers, and in home backyards and urban lots. Yet, while gardens full of fresh fruits and vegetables may have a great curb appeal, they were developed in response to the dire lack of access to nutritious food in Detroit, a city classified as a “food desert.” These community gardens, supported and inspired by organizations like Keep Growing Detroit (KGD), have had incredible success not only in extending community access to healthy foods, but also in revolutionizing attitudes about both nutrition and environmental preservation. 

The nonprofit Keep Growing Detroit is at the forefront of Detroit’s community gardening scene. Their Garden Resource Program has helped supply nearly 1,600 gardens in the city with seeds and growing information to get started. Their work doesn’t stop there: KGD also helps farmers sell their delicious yields at community markets, manages educational programs for people of all ages, coordinates donations of excess produce with local food banks, and more. 

The impacts of community gardens extend far beyond providing a stable food supply in the city; they are also very beneficial to environmental health and preservation. By generating a thriving local food economy within city limits, community gardens reduce greenhouse gas emissions necessary to ship food long distances. Small scale gardeners also often use organic growing practices, unlike many industrial farms. Organic practices don’t apply pesticides or herbicides, meaning these chemicals are diverted from polluting our streams, air, oceans, and the natural world in general. Additionally, garden programs like KGD encourage planting native vegetation and pollinator-friendly plant species. This not only preserves green space in the city, but also attracts and supports thriving insect and animal populations.  

A natural question to ask is, does a city full of small-scale gardens actually have tangible impacts on food insecurity and inadequate nutrition? An extensive study based in Detroit and published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition set out to answer just that. One of the key findings of the study was that people engaged in community gardening consume more fruits and vegetables than those who aren’t. This is a huge step in the right direction for a city like Detroit that has struggled to provide citizens with adequate produce and in a county where only about 10 percent of adults eat enough fruits and vegetables

Another result of the study was that when interviewed, many involved in the KGD gardening program cited that gardening allowed them to save money on groceries, deepened their emotional connection to the environment, and changed their perspective on the modern food system. These are just a few of the very real ways in which the revolution of gardening across Detroit has positively influenced the daily lives of citizens, and many other cities are beginning to follow suit. And while food insecurity is a complex problem that can’t be solved overnight, community gardens may just be the defining change our world needs. 

Cover photo courtesy of Unsplash

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