Neighborhood gardens and school gardens have become increasingly popular in Memphis, TN. The benefit of community and schools gardens serves the purpose to increase to access to healthy food, advance educational opportunities about food, but also to build community. My experience working in community gardens in different neighborhoods and at different schools in Memphis has shown me how important gardening has been in brining communities together, and building social capital. I will share some of my observations, research and experiences with you.
Across the country, community gardening has increasingly become part of landscape in neighborhoods and on school campuses. I live and work in Memphis, Tennessee, where the trend of community gardening is starting to pick up steam. Questions around healthy living and better eating have become part of the fabric in the last few years.
On the south side of Memphis, community gardens are boasting a colorful array of tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant, carrots, radishes, watermelon, strawberries, sweet potatoes, squash, peas, okra, basil, spicy mustards, and almost every variety of greens. The harvests are shared with community members, and some community gardens are able to produce enough to sell at farmers markets in town.
Over the past three years I have volunteered in community gardens at the University of Memphis, and in different neighborhoods across the city. Each garden is diverse, boasting its unique blend of fruits and vegetables, but a common theme I’ve witnessed is a sense of community that is fostered through gardening.
In the summer of 2014, I interned and conducted research for the local nonprofit GrowMemphis. GrowMemphis has a mission to promote a sustainable local food system throughout the city. During my internship, I worked closely with garden leaders in many of the community gardens that it supports. These garden leaders have a passion for gardening and value the consumption of fresh vegetables to create healthier lifestyles. Many community gardens in Memphis are located in neighborhoods that the USDA considers ‘food deserts.’ The lack of access to grocery stores and healthy food options, coupled with inadequate transportation opportunities, has created a void in nutritional food options for individuals living in certain neighborhoods. Garden leaders have tackled these challenges head-on and to spearhead a motion of change using gardening as a catalyst for healthier living. Their passion for growing and consuming fresh produce is contagious.
A bit of History on community gardening
Historically, urban gardens in the United States have roots in the Great Depression, and gardening alleviated some of the stresses imposed on the urban poor by providing greater access to food, and creating an urban space to increase morale among unemployed workers. During World War II, the federal government supported “Victory Gardens” as a form of social relief. The Victory Gardens produced 40 percent of Americans’ vegetable supply. In the 1970’s, urban gardens were heavily influenced by grassroots activism efforts towards building better communities, and creating activities and spaces to develop social interactions for wellbeing. We tell the story in Memphis that when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the historic Douglass Community in North Memphis in the 1930’s and saw the community gardening initiatives taking place in Douglass, she promoted the growth of the Victory Garden movement across the country.
In Douglass today, a woman who is originally from the community, and works in a school garden in that neighborhood tells how growing up in the 1950’s she remembers how almost everyone in that community had a garden plot. Similarly, in Orange Mound, another historic neighborhood in Memphis, a garden leader who currently operates a small urban farm in this neighborhood shares stories about his community’s reliance on urban gardening growing up.
Today, community gardening is not as abundant in these communities as it once was. These communities have gone through periods of economic decline, and younger generations did not adopt the gardening practices of their grandparents and parents. Though in recent years, community members have moved back home, and taken a strong interest in the health and future of their communities. They have started community gardens, engage the youth to get involved, and have strong interests in sharing produce with the community.
Just as Victory Gardens were implemented to fill a void in the country’s food shortage during the Great Depression and war years, community gardening today is emerging to address the void in access to healthy food options in certain communities.
Growing a Community Bridge
The benefits of community gardens extend beyond providing fresh produce. In Memphis, they have created cohesion and have built social capital by bringing community members together, and connecting organizations to communities in unique ways. For example, the congregation of a Catholic church in South Memphis built a community garden across the street from the church to connect the church to the broader community. They have been successful in being able to bring students from schools to the garden, as well as bringing church members and community members together for work days in the garden. The slogan at this garden is “Health comes from the farm, not the pharmacy.”
My experience working in communities and with nonprofit organizations that are focused on local agriculture and the local food system, led me to start working for an organization called The Kitchen Community. On April 7, 2015, The Kitchen Community launched a city-wide effort to build 100 Learning Gardens in schools across Memphis. The program will lead workshops to support teachers incorporating gardens into the classroom-learning environment, and will help schools build relationships with the broader community in which these schools are located. Community members and nonprofits have fostered the grassroots foundation in community gardening in Memphis, and the benefits of these opportunities will grow as more communities and schools have access to Learning Gardens, and more resources to build community in multiple ways through gardening.
Written by Marie Dennan, The Kitchen Community, April 2015
Other articles written by The Kitchen Community; “Two Perspectives on Gardening”