Community gardens are plots of land cared for by groups of people who agree to share the cost, effort, and produce of the garden.
Their origin in our country predates the American Revolution, the 1759 Community Garden at Historic Bethabara Park, in what is now Winston-Salem, North Carolina, being considered the first such garden. Bethabara was settled by a small group of German-speaking Moravians who immigrated to North Carolina Colony from central Europe. Their garden served as both a source of fresh vegetables and herbs and a way for the community to remain connected to one another.
Community gardens increased exponentially during World War II. Known as ‘Victory Gardens,’ these community gardens directly supported the war effort. It’s estimated that almost 20 million Americans planted Victory Gardens during this period. These gardens contributed 9 -10 million tons of produce – approximately the same amount that was commercially produced! Interestingly, when the war ended and the government stopped promoting Victory Gardens, many people stopped planting them. However, large-scale farms could not pick up the slack fast enough and some food shortages resulted.
Today, there are about 18,000 community gardens in the U.S. and Canada. Their purposes vary from being a means of providing fresh produce to lower income and homeless people to being horticultural and artistic showcases in more affluent settings.
Since population continues to rise while agricultural output falls as more people get out of the farming industry and move to the cities, there’s a continued need for community gardens. An increase in the lower income population and the difficulty of accessing fresh, healthy produce in less affluent neighborhoods adds to the need for community gardens.
Community gardens offer a number of potential benefits to those who choose to participate. These benefits include:
- Fresh produce at lower cost than produce purchased at a store.
- Additional income, if produce is sold.
- Improved health and nutrition through greater access to fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
- Exercise and learning.
- Improved community relations resulting from neighbors working to achieve a common goal.
- Beautified neighborhood.
- May reduce crime by being an area where residents are seen as caring about their environment.
- Improve air quality.
Oakland is home to a number of community gardens. However, more are needed. Here’s what to do, if you want to start your own community garden:
- Find some like-minded partners with whom to share the cost, work, and bounty.
- Form a planning committee to determine the garden location, use of the space, costs, availability of government or private grants and subsidies, workload, etc.
- Obtain insurance to limit risk.
- Select and prepare the garden site.
- Plant and maintain the garden.
- Harvest and distribute the produce.
Despite the clear potential benefits of a community garden, success is by no means guaranteed. Some people are surprised by the cost and personal effort involved in starting and maintaining the garden. Others may encounter conflict with their garden partners regarding shared responsibilities or how the harvest is to be distributed. The weather, animals, or vandals may damage the garden.
These risks should be considered up front and plans should be made to mitigate any issues that may arise (e.g., community garden by-laws and clear roles and responsibilities can guard against potential conflict within the group).
When done well, community gardens are a local source of fresh, nutritious food and an asset to the neighborhood. I suggest we increase the number of community gardens in Oakland, ensuring that we make affordable, nutritious food available in all parts of our community.
Keeping Oakland Beautiful (and healthy) is everybody’s business.
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