The problem with many of these celebrated benefits of community gardening is that they rely on one or both of two key assumptions: first, that enough people will participate in the garden to render it a significant community-building and health-boosting arena, and second, that the garden itself is big enough to have a noticeable impact on factors like air quality and access to nutritious food.
How many people can these gardens really affect, and how deeply? This question might well be the crux of the problem when it comes to winning public sector support for Community Gardens-support that can contribute significantly to their success and sustainability. The City of Chicago, for example, has a green space preservation fund. Zoning laws can also be made more or less favorable to the preservation of green spaces. Boston has a zoning code designed specifically to protect community gardens.
Part two of a three-part series on community gardens. Click here for part one. Click here for part two.
Unfortunately, even with studies to back up the positive effects of people-plant interactions, making the case for community gardens cannot be as easy as making the case for something that produces more measurable effects and for which participation is more assured. People can generally be expected to make use of a well-placed hardware store or supermarket because everybody has to run errands. But it may be hard to believe that many people will take the time to leave home for gardening. Beyond neglect, downright disrespect for community gardens might also be a concern. In short, with nobody assigned the decisive responsibility that comes from exclusive ownership, any common space could easily be subject to tragedy. It is therefore difficult to justify a real need for public support for community gardens in light of tightly stretched government budgets.
Enter Kid’s Cook Classroom and the Loring Schoolyard Garden. Together, they offer a model way to deliver significant benefits of community gardening with minimal need for government support. True, all community gardens need a great deal of support from volunteers and from whatever other entities can help assure the provision of land, labor and water. But in the case of the Loring Schoolyard Garden, that support has come from self-sustaining fundraisers and from Loring School, not to mention the work of the three program coordinators.
The garden does not depend for survival on the often fatal expense of leasing, renting or otherwise obtaining and holding onto its land because Loring School acts as its fiscal sponsor by donating the use of its schoolyard rent-free.
For other expenses, the garden is self-sustaining; students use the food they grow to prepare meals for fundraisers and for other community events where they offer homegrown products for sale. They are able to raise about ten thousand dollars a year.
Moreover, the design of the program ensures maximal benefits by targeting children, engaging a large group of people and focusing on food. Involving children as part of their school curriculum minimizes the risk that the garden will be used only by a select group of community members who have extra time and happen to be interested in gardening, thus ensuring that benefits are significantly wide-reaching. The school setting is conducive to cultivating new garden enthusiasts because it exposes children to an activity they might otherwise have little chance to explore. Although Robin, Starla and Susan still take on the bulk of the organizing work, the program design helps them avoid the most serious hazards of a narrow leadership base by spreading out the burden of actual garden work and engaging a large (and constantly refreshing) group of potential future garden leaders.
The program, by integrating gardening with cooking and community-building, does a better job than stand-alone gardens of promoting healthy habits, greater appreciation for nature and community engagement. Because the Loring Schoolyard garden is part of a process that includes using food from the garden for cooking, the health benefits of access to nutritionally-rich foods and increased knowledge of natural foods are far more assured than they would be if the garden were not tied deliberately to cooking and learning. Children are able to directly see where their food comes from and how to use it so that they can understand (and taste) the difference between home-grown and processed food. Likewise, because the meals and dishes that students learn to prepare are in turn frequently used to bring the neighborhood community together for events, the oft-cited benefit of promoting a sense of community connectedness is also more assured than if the garden were not part of a program that includes purposeful community-building.
Perhaps most importantly, all these lessons learned in the garden are particularly effective when embedded in the school setting because children, still in their formative years, are best able to absorb what they learn as a set of lifelong skills and values.
There is no easy or clear-cut way to export the Kids Cook Classroom program, but it can definitely serve as a model for a school with some extra yard space and a group of community volunteers with a passion for gardening and organizing. It is a model worth serious consideration as a long-term investment to produce a healthier and more community-conscious future generation.