Tomato thieves plague St. Paul, Minneapolis community gardens

You're right — that's an eggplant, not a tomato. Tomatoes, however, are among the most common targets for garden thieves. (Photos taken at Community Peace Gardens on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis by Aaron Hays)

It may seem like petty theft, but to the people who till, plant and weed their tiny community garden plots, the loss of their vegetables to thieves is both monetary and emotional.

Started as a way to encourage urban agriculture and to get healthy food into lower income city neighborhoods, community gardening is popular in the Twin Cities. Many of the gardens are located where fresh, organic vegetables are often hard to find. The garden plots are on vacant land, either privately or city owned, and gardeners pay a small rental fee. A lot of sweat equity goes into the gardens, but the rewards go beyond the dinner table. Gardeners say that the gardens create strong ties with each other and their neighborhoods.

But, those ties go only so far. Thieves are targeting community gardens, sometimes in organized groups, and stealing the produce, often in broad daylight.

The problem is not a new one, according the Kristen Saylor, the Executive Director of Gardening Matters, the local "go-to" community gardening resource organization. “There’s random picking, but the most egregious are the grocery bag thefts. People come in to harvest to their heart’s content.”

“I got a report this week,” said Merle Greene, coordinator of the Eleanor Graham Community Garden in St. Paul. “One of our gardeners was growing tomatoes and she said that she’s given them one more day to ripen. She went to pick them and they were gone. The hardest part is when someone cleans out one plot. Then, other gardeners will help by sharing their produce.”

Greene said that their garden has problems every year. “We see people doing it and come up to them and ask, ‘Is this your plot?’ But we see the same people coming back, so they know for sure it’s not a free public garden. We explain how to get a plot of their own, but they’re not really interested.”

Greene said that her group never confronts people or calls the police. “You’re setting yourself up for vandalism if you do,” she said. “Mostly, people just move on.”

Despite problems with theft, Z. Lu Alexander farms a plot at the Oxford Dayton Community Farm, next to her St. Paul home. “They come by the carload,” she said of the thieves. “People would come like they were shopping. Drivers stay in the car and people would grab what they could and take off. It’s a terrible secret. No one is talking about it.”

Unlike Greene, Alexander has no problem confronting the people who steal from her community garden. “I told a man who was taking stuff that there was a food shelf two blocks away and he screamed at me,” she said. Once, she called the police. “They responded quickly, but by that time, the kid had taken off,” she said. “I don’t feel like doing all that work to have people come shopping,” she said.

Saylor said she doesn’t think that most people who steal from community gardens are people who are destitute. Alexander’s community garden includes four garden plots where the harvests are given free to those in need. Greene’s gardens grow produce sent each week to a woman’s shelter. Pilfered garden produce means fewer vegetables to donate.

“Times are tough. There is a need,” Saylor admitted. But, she said, the garden plots set aside for those in need hasn’t stopped the stealing.

Ideas about how to stop the thefts are hard to come by. Calls for advice to the St. Paul Police media representative were not returned. The Minneapolis Police Department Crime Prevention had no answers, except to add lighting and fencing, solutions that community gardeners called prohibitively expensive. Community gardeners are trying a variety of ideas, but most aren’t very effective.

Photographer Aaron Hays observed padlocks on some individual garden plots, but said, "although I didn't attempt to enter those specific plots, it would not have been terribly difficult." 


Greene’s group has talked about putting up signs to designate personal ownership of plots or to explain the hard work that goes into a garden.

Alexander has gone so far as to change her way of gardening. She now has 13 raised growing beds in her front yard to grow the vegetables that might attract thieves if they were grown in her community plot. “I changed the garden plot into strawberries, garlic and raspberries. I use the strawberry leaves for tea and don’t care who steals the fruit. The raspberry bushes are too full of stickers and the thieves don’t know what the garlic is,” she said.

Saylor tells gardeners to change the layout of their plots. “If you plant in rows, someone can get all the carrots, or broccoli. Or, plant things that people aren’t familiar with, keeping your favorites inside the plot so it’s not handy for thieves.”

Saylor said that she hopes that Community Garden Day, scheduled for Aug. 11, will help stop the damage and connect the gardeners with people in the surrounding community. “We fling open the garden gates and invite people in. There are fun activities for kids, food tasting, classes and workshops,” she said.

“The garden itself won’t survive if we’re only thinking of ourselves,” she said. “You can use strategies, but in the end we want people to participate and we want to make it open and inviting. We know that there are health and economic benefits, but it’s hard to put a price tag on a community.”

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    Stephanie Fox's picture
    Stephanie Fox

    Stephanie Fox (stephaniefox2 at tcdailyplanet dot net) has a Master's Degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. She moved to Minneapolis of her own free will in 1984.

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    Great article

    Very good article. I had no idea! Well-reported. This is a sad story, actually. A bunch of gardening bullys.

    Leftists foment resentment

    Leftists foment resentment and nihilism, and then are surprised when they are the victims of crime.  This isn't so hard to figure out.  If you spend your life telling people in the ghetto that they are entitled to be utterly selfish then one should expect them to be utterly selfish.

    Ghetto?

    It is a big assumption that the theives are "Ghetto".  Perhaps accurate, but perhaps not.  Can the author of the article, or anone who has seen theives (i.e Z. Lu Alexander who had the man yell at her) give a description of the theives?  Are they all immigrants who have different understanding of pesonal property?  Are they white suburban moms who are down on their luck and think they need to steal to keep their kids from starving?  Are they commercial sellers who flip the produce at a farmers market?

    I personally agree that they are just likely low life entitled "ghett" dwellers, but the part I dont understand is that that demographic is generally more interested in their Big Macs rather than big fresh tomatos.

    So, can the author or theft witnesses shed more light on this matter?  Lets move beyone "It’s a terrible secret. No one is talking about it.” and clear the air.  Who is doing the stealing?  Without knowing who they are how will we ever be able to solve the prob lem?

    Racist and semi-literate, too

    This comment starts out by appearing to question a stereotype - and then adds several more, along with misspelling and grammatical problems. 

    It's also typical in being anonymous, and using a phony email address. 

    We don't publish every comment, but maybe this is an occasion for discussion - do you think we should publish anonymous comments? Or not-very-veiled racism, like this one? 

    Apology

    >Racist and semi-literate, too

    Please accept my sincere apology for bringing race into this discussion.  As a community gardener I simply wanted to understand better why this is happening and the types of people that are performing the thefts.  Since the article seemed to sidestep what is likely the most important thing to understand in order to work to prevent theft- the motivation of the thieves- I though I would ask the questions I did.  In fact, I think the article would have been even stronger if the author had managed to actually 'catch' a thief and ask directly about their motivation.  But despite this minor shortcoming it was still a great article.  Sorry that it was taken over by the other major news sources. But you are right- I should not have brought race into it by saying:

    >Are they white suburban moms

    In truth there is no reason to think that the thieves are white.  They could be any race (in so far as 'white' is even a 'race’).  I would like to apologize directly to any white mothers who where offended by my comment.  As a minority myself I know that grouping individuals by perceived skin color, as opposed to cultural affiliation (i.e. "ghetto" which could be any race) is counter productive.

    As for the textural problems, you realize that your comment editing tool lacks a spellcheck don't you?

    And the anonymity? How else can anyone submit an opinion that risks conflicting with Mary Turk?  Who wants to be personally called a racist for asking honest (if ill worded) questions?  It is fine that you attack my ideas; but with your hostility I do not want you attacking me in the co-op or any other social space in which we meet.

    Its the squirrels

    I have been part of a community garden for a couple of years and the culprit is not people---its the squirrels.  It seems like they wait until the tomatoes are good and juicy then take one bite and leave it.  I find the people in this article to be selfish, its a community garden! I'm sure they still get plenty of goodies. 

    Evil Squirrels

    The squirrels do the same thing to my garden. However, most squirrels don't drive up in cars armed with shopping bags. If you read the article, you'd note that many community gardens set aside plots, where the gardeners till, plant and weed, for anyone in need. Other gardens donate to food shelves, women's shelters. This is hardly selfish. Gardners put in long hours and hard work and should be able to harvest their own tomatoes.

     

    first time gardener

    This year was my first year of gardening at a community garden. We spent a lot on the plot, the seeds, the plants, fencing, fertilizer, and other things to make our garden work. After putting so much work on our garden and finally seeing the fruits of our labor, we had several people come up to us off the streets and ask for free vegetables. And even though, it's nice that they didn't just take it without our knowledge it was upsetting to me to have these people leave with two plastic shopping bags full of free veggies while we all paid and worked so hard to make them. There are stories of thefts in our garden as well. One of the gardeners said he has told them to pick whatever they wanted. And I feel like this is an invitation to have them back all the time. If this is how community gardening is, I'm not sure I want to be a part of it. I think I'd rather be the part who sits back and relax and then when harvest time comes around bring my two plastic bags and go out for a free picking.