As an alarming, increasing, number of Americans report food insecurity with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continuing to ravage the country, the ability of community gardens to supply meaningful amounts of healthy food to those who might not otherwise be able to afford it could be, arguably, their greatest power. For example, Brooklynite Denver Butson, who this year tends —inefficiently, by his own estimation — a 4-foot-by-4-foot half-plot, for a $40 investment will raise all the bok choy, cabbage, and salad greens his family can consume for the growing season, plus a decent haul of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, peas, and herbs.

But with cities scrambling to draw up budgets from the ashes of their COVID-flamed coffers, some advocates worry that the role these gardens play to self-sufficiency will be overlooked, leaving them with reduced funding streams.

Garden Funding on the Chopping Block

The budget for fiscal year 2020 included $8.2 million to support 550 community gardens run by the parks department. These comprise a significant percentage of an estimated 1,350-plus community gardens (not including school gardens) throughout the five boroughs. In a statement, the parks department told FoodPrint that last year’s budget “allowed us to expand support to all gardens” with, among other things, 45,000 food-producing plants that will see the gardens “throughout the pandemic and current fiscal crisis.” But with such funds absent from the 2021 budget, the longer-term solvency of these gardens is a looming question.

We have seen elected officials at all levels of government…acknowledge how community gardens empower their members to not only choose what they eat but also how it’s grown and distributed,” wrote Tara Gitter to FoodPrint via email. Gitter is a government affairs manager for the New York Restoration Project, which runs 52 gardens that are partly endowed by another municipal pot: discretionary city funds that took as much as a 50 percent hit in the new budget. “The COVID-19 crisis has shown how our leaders tout the value of our parks and gardens in creating resilient communities, and how in trying times, parks and gardens are left out to dry.”

Christine Porter, a public health professor at the University of Wyoming who conducted a recent study of community and home garden outcomes in Laramie, calls an impetus to downplay gardens’ importance “old thinking. It mystifies me that in the country that invented the victory garden, we have backslid.”

Her study set out to prove to Laramie Valley’s county commission that despite the challenges of things like an inhospitable climate, food could be grown there. What Porter concluded was that community and home gardening “grow meaningful amounts of food that exceeded our expectations, and in a way that can be transformative for producers,” for whom planting seeds is, quite literally, “planting hope.”

The pandemic has only increased the necessity of this enterprise. As was reported extensively in March and April, industrialized food systems, while efficient in the best of times, “break down easily because there’s no redundancy,” Porter says. Community gardens, on the other hand, help create a hyper-local food system that can’t be disrupted — “Especially if you save seeds and also get some [gardening] skills.”

The federal government has given a nod to the public health relevance of such systems — notably, allowing SNAP recipients to use their benefits on seeds and seedlings. But this a long way from ensuring that anyone who wants, or needs, to garden is able to, at a time when so many Americans are careening towards hunger, or have landed there already.

Impacts on Refugee Communities

The idea that community gardens are expendable “is a common sentiment, especially in times of budgetary constraint like we’re now seeing across the country,” says James Hunter. He’s program manager of the Salt Lake City outpost of the International Rescue Committee’s 25-city New Roots community gardening initiative for refugees.

Part of the problem as he sees it: “People don’t have knowledge and experience of what community gardens are capable of; it generally takes someone telling stories about potential production and folks seeing that potential firsthand.”

Almost 150 families — newly arrived in Salt Lake City from Bhutan, Nepal, Burma, East and Central Africa, among other countries — raise food on 250 New Roots community garden plots for their own use; another 43 families raise food to sell at farmers markets and via a CSA, as well as to Whole Foods and local school districts. Making up 6 percent of Salt Lake County’s population, refugees often live at or around the poverty line, which puts them at high risk for food insecurity. In fact, New Roots was conceived specifically as a food access intervention for this vulnerable group.

Hunter says that 86 percent of New Roots’ refugee gardeners report saving an average of $30 a week by growing things like amaranth, long beans, pumpkin shoots, greens, and eggplants. It’s a significant amount for a family uncertain of how it will be able to scrounge for groceries after paying for top expenditures of rent and transportation.

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