Beyond the beautiful gardens: Can urban farms grow our food?

Kids tending the Pillsbury Garden // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

Kids tending the Pillsbury Garden // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

When Denise Crews, of Hope Community, was diagnosed with diabetes, she vowed to not let it ruin her life. She began working in the garden and eating the fresh food she helped grow. She lost weight, reduced her blood sugar levels, got moving, and is now in control of her diet and health. “The costs savings from growing basil, parsley, tomatoes, and peas were enormous; there were times I got everything I needed from the garden,” Crews says. National research has shown that a productive garden, even in our climate, can knock some $700 per season off a family’s grocery bill.

Community gardens in Minneapolis’ food deserts—Hope Community, Beltrami Community, the Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative Nicollet Square Youth Shelter—are providing significant amounts of real, fresh food. The Land Stewardship Project (LSP), a private nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming practices, envisions this work as “points of entry” for under-served communities to become advocates for change. “We’re here to garden and to build relationships of trust,” says Dylan Bradford Kesti of LSP. “Education and involvement are imperative for addressing the root cause of food inaccessibility in urban areas”

Betsy Sohn, community organizer and program manager for the 5,000-square-foot Hope Community garden, has witnessed gardeners’ transition from consumers to engaged citizens. “The ultimate solution to the city’s racial and income disparities is to create a system where everyone has the skill to grow his or her own food, and where a community then enjoys the food they produce,” she says.

Youth Farm at the Midtown Farmers' Market // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

Youth Farm at the Midtown Farmers’ Market // Photo courtesy of Youth Farm

Urban farms and community gardens are helping the city become food sovereign. Don’t we all have the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods; the right to define our own food system? As Sohn notes, “Our communities need to be re-envisioned as places where we can get our basic needs met—our human needs met—while contributing to work that is larger than ourselves, that does us all good.”

As a local food advocate, writer, and cookbook author, I’m often asked, “Can local food feed the world?” I can only reply, “Why do we think it should?” Local food production’s role is not to deliver the most food at the lowest cost. Its value cannot be measured simply in pounds harvested or in money saved. In this system, decisions are made with an eye to nutrition, honest flavor, the soil’s fertility, human health, and fair wages. Its highest consideration is the future, not the bottom line. It’s only within my short 60-year lifespan that growing hops, brewing beer, gardening, cooking, and composting have become recreational skills. But local food is not a novelty; it will be increasingly important when energy prices begin to soar once again and unstable weather is the norm.

The better we get to know our food, through CSAs, farmers’ markets, community gardens, and local pubs; the more we brew, cook, and grow our own produce; the more likely we are to understand the impact our local and national policies have on farmers and producers. We can see first-hand how small changes to our city’s zoning codes or food truck regulations can improve the quality of our lives. When we engage with urban growers, we rediscover the beauty and pleasures of nature’s bounty that may help inform more positive decisions as we cook, dine, and drink together and vote for our leaders.

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