An Oasis in the Food Desert

An Oasis in the Food Desert

© Carl Warner,

While it seems you can’t walk down the street these days without running into a community garden, many low-income neighborhoods still lack access to healthy and affordable food. The absence of supermarkets—hence the name “food deserts”—forces residents to rely on fast-food restaurants and convenience stores, leading to limited food options and diet-related medical problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Ietef “DJ Cavem” Vita, a hip-hop artist who raps about food justice, is part of a movement that uses urban agriculture to restore people’s health and rebuild communities. Vita has helped start community gardens in Denver neighborhoods afflicted with drugs and gangs so that young people can learn how to grow their own vegetables. The fresh produce they harvest not only provides their families with healthy food, but it also offers entrepreneurial opportunities; one young man Vita mentored started a business turning people’s lawns into edible gardens.

In Oakland, California, the nonprofit organization Planting Justice provides urban agriculture jobs to formerly incarcerated men as they reenter society. Haleh Zandi, Planting Justice’s educational director, notes, “When people get out of prison, it’s important for them to have a job immediately upon release, because in California 70 percent of people who come out of prison go back within three years.” Planting Justice teamed up with the Insight Garden Program to build relationships with male inmates while they still are in San Quentin State Prison. The men gain organic-gardening skills by growing plants on prison grounds. After their release, the prospect of earning a living wage and the sense of purpose that comes with working a “green” job helps reduce recidivism, Zandi says.

In Colorado, Veterans to Farmers uses urban agriculture to help another group seeking to reenter society: soldiers. The organization’s founder, Buck Adams, is a former Marine. “I understand how hard it is to transition back to civilian life,” he says. He puts veterans through a kind of agricultural boot camp. When their training is complete, they are “redeployed” to an urban greenhouse and given the opportunity to become an owner. Through their work cultivating food and feeding the community, they are reintegrated emotionally and economically into society, he says.

Nick Gruber, owner of Produce Denver, a business that turns lawns and underused land in Denver into edible gardens, points out that urban agriculture helps erase preconceived notions about nature and food. When people who have never set foot on a farm enter one of Gruber’s urban gardens, they see what food looks like rooted in the soil instead of wrapped in plastic, and they learn what vegetables taste like when they’ve been freshly harvested.

Gruber is working with Denver Public Schools to grow produce on campuses for use in school cafeterias, and he is experimenting with a model in which volunteers from outside the school system help raise and harvest the crops to unite communities around the act of growing food. “Urban agriculture is really about connecting people,” says Gruber. “Connecting them to nature, connecting them to farming and to food, connecting them to each other.”

Candice Orlando, co-founder of UrbiCulture Community Farms in Denver, says that one of the most successful projects she’s been involved with began when a woman who walked through an ugly empty lot each day contacted her to ask if something productive could be done with the blighted land. Orlando began meeting with community leaders and got an enthusiastic response. “Once the momentum started, it couldn’t be stopped,” she says. Corporate sponsorship provided the funding to get things going, and donations began rolling in. A company brought machinery to grade the property for free. Someone donated fence materials. A community work day was held, and about 40 people came together to participate in an event that resembled an old-fashioned barn raising. Today, garden beds filled with peppers and tomatoes have replaced the trash and broken glass.

What you can do

If You Have a Minute…

Visit the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas to find out which neighborhoods in your area lack access to healthy food, and then share your findings on social media.

If You Have an Hour…

Visit the website of the American Community Gardening Association to find a project in your area; then volunteer. Spending an hour outdoors weeding can restore the soul, and surrounding yourself with people working on innovative ways to provide healthful, affordable food can leave you inspired to become part of the solution.

If You Have a Month…

Visit Permaculture Activist or Grow Biointensive to find classes in your area and learn how to grow food productively in small spaces. Then share your skills through an organization dedicated to community food production—or start your own community garden.,

If You Have $100…

Make a donation to Veterans to Farmers. Your donation will help the organization establish a National Training Center Greenhouse, which will provide veterans home from Iraq and Afghanistan with a stable source of income and emotional healing as they are trained to grow healthful food sustainably in urban communities across America.

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