Planting the seeds for community health

It is no secret that in this country many men, women, and children are going to bed hungry on a regular basis.  According to a 2012 USDA study, as many as 17.6 million households (14.5%) could be considered food insecure. Going hand in hand with the issue of hunger, many individuals face severe nutritional deficits due to poor dietary consumption.

The planning profession has the potential to help combat issues of hunger and poor nutrition through the support of locally based agricultural movements including, community gardens, urban food forests, and through policy that helps educate citizens about issues of food.

The recently opened Beacon Food Forest in Seattle is a great example of urban revitalization and community building through food production. The Beacon forest is a 7-acre foraging mecca, just 2 miles outside of the Seattle city center. Best of all, it is accessible to everyone, free of charge.  This foraging forest provides far more than locally grown, nutritious food; it also serves as an institution of learning, a place for communal gathering, and as an eye-opening experience for many whom practically live in the drive-thru lines of our fast food nation.

Diagram of space utilization and food diversity in an urban food forest. Graham Burnett 2006.

The Beacon Food Forest is a truly unique food sharing model, as it is open and accessible to everyone to harvest whatever produce that he/she wants, regardless of income.  It breaks the traditional mold of community supported agriculture in that individuals typically have to “buy in” or at least live in the residential area of the garden.  Critics of the food forest model note that there is nothing to stop individuals from overusing the garden and taking more than they will need. The tragedy of the commons argument shows its face all too often in relation to public goods, and shouldn’t weaken the many potential positive effects of community education and exposure to locally grown food movements.

The Department of Parks and Recreations in Portland has created a network of community gardens as part of their land use strategy, which serve “3,000 gardeners, across all ages, income ranges and levels of experience.” Even though these planned community gardens have to compete for space with other recreational facilities, such as playgrounds and local sports fields, Portland’s Parks and Recreation has come to favor the numerous benefits that come from these gardens. People are now more connected with their food, children can learn about food production and nutrition, and positive public gathering places have been created.

Many communities including Boise, have already established a wide range of support for local food, i.e. avid backyard enthusiasts, community supported agriculture businesses, educational gardens and local farmers’ markets.  While many initiatives already exist, one of the biggest challenges planners face is creating infrastructure and programs that provide accessibility and affordability of high quality, nutritious food for those who need it most, those who are food insecure.

Volunteers lay the foundation for a community garden in Montreal. Klest 2008.

Volunteers lay the foundation for a community garden in Montreal. Klest 2008.

Buying a share of a community garden can often be expensive; furthermore most community supported agricultural programs (CSA’s) are only visible to those who are actively looking for them.  The cost to purchase a 20 week share of Idaho Refugees Community Garden is $439.00.  The question that needs to be addressed is why would anyone who is not educated on the lasting benefits of good nutrition and the benefits of local food, spend $439.00 for a 20 week CSA membership when one can spend $439.00 to buy 413 double cheeseburgers from McDonalds?

The answer is simple. Many individuals wouldn’t.  Fast food is heavily advertised, easy and ready to eat, and it is hard for some to justify spending $21.00 a week for produce that your family probably won’t know how to prepare in order to make it appetizing. While there are efforts being made to increase the accessibility of locally supported and healthy food options, they often times fall out of the view of those who would benefit most.

A weekly share from a CSA. 2008.

A weekly share from a CSA. 2008.

This is where the planner and projects like the Beacon Food Forest can come into play, by helping to raise awareness, and providing access to alternative food choices.  Placing a 7-acre foraging forest just outside of a city center can go a long way to help draw attention to local food production.  Strategic development plans, that incorporate the transformation of public and private lands to centers of food production and education, can also be utilized to help improve community health and awareness.

These food forests and community gardens by no means mitigate all problems of food insecurity and poor nutrition. They are but one possible solution to solving a tragic social problem in our country.

Planners have the ability to help improve and positively shape the social environment; and it is my opinion that one of the best ways for that improvement to occur is through thoughtful planning and advocacy of local food.

2 thoughts on “Planting the seeds for community health

  1. Really interesting blog. I think the idea of a community garden is an innovative way to help feed those in need. From a logistics standpoint, I am curious how involved a planner would be opposed to say, a nutritionist or a someone specializing in health promotion. I think it is a great example of the different roles of planners and how interdependent fields in the public sector can be.

  2. I totally agree. In my mind when a planner is involved in urban gardens or food forests they help get the community in motion. The project hopefully functions as a baseboard for food insecure individuals to have a reason to become involved and get educated, which is where a nutritionist could come in to help these already motivated citizens.

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