In an area known for pristine ingredients and for shepherding the farm-to-table movement, it is almost unfathomable that many residents in the San Francisco Bay Area don’t have access to fresh produce. Yet, the reality is that those residing in low income areas are often confronted with a dearth of grocery stores where they can purchase affordable, healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Despite the obvious need and what would seem like an upside for retailers, they are often reluctant to open grocery stores in impoverished inner city neighborhoods where food deserts exists. The concept of supermarket redlining where chains relocate existing stores in urban areas to the suburbs or avoid poor, minority neighborhoods altogether is still a force at play. One study concluded that there are four times as many supermarkets in white neighborhoods than areas with a significantly higher black population.
This lack of access contributes to food insecurity among the city’s most vulnerable citizens, and on any given day 1 in 4 people in San Francisco faces the threat of hunger.
As supermarkets continue to neglect areas in need, local organizations are heeding the call and creating community gardens to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the underserved as well as hand-on programs to teach them how to make their own food.”These organizations are building a community around residents that don’t have much green space,” said Amy Ridout, an organic farmer and agricultural consultant. “These programs help close the knowledge and skill gap so that they can grow their own food.”
One such organization in San Francisco is CommunityGrows. Founded in 1994, its mission is “to cultivate healthy youth through growing gardens in diverse, low-income communities.” Recognizing the deep-seated needs within the Western Addition, its earliest efforts were concentrated there. As one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods, 31 percent of its residents live 200 percent below the Census Poverty Threshold.
As is typical for neighborhoods with high volumes of public housing, convenience stores were aplenty in the Western Addition, but full-service grocery stores were scarce. “A lot of the neighborhoods we work in, food access is very tough,” said Adrian Almquist, garden programs manager, CommunityGrows. “Often times the only option for youths is to go to the corner store and get chips and soda.”
Looking to provide the area’s youngest residents with healthy foods and skills to cook at home with their families, CommunityGrows developed a series of culinary and gardening programs. The organization works with kids as young as five, allowing them to grow their own food and try a variety of fruits and vegetables that they might not otherwise experience. “By youths spending time in the garden, they start to have more access and more willingness to eat fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Almquist.
To expand the children’s food literacy further, they also participate in cooking classes where they use the food they have grown in the gardens as part of the recipes. Older children can participate in a paid internship that is designed to help them develop job readiness skills for careers in gardening and environmental education. As part of the fourth-month program, they design, build and maintain gardens as well as teach garden classes to younger kids.
Since its inception, CommunityGrows has renovated and/or maintained nine parks and gardens in the Western Addition. And in 2014, there were 1338 youth who participated in 627 classes offered by the organization. And while the full extent of the benefits associated with urban gardens is still being researched and debated, studies have found that communities with urban gardens experienced a reduction in crime and an increase in property values.
But the real value might be something intangible and much harder to quantify; reconnecting people with where their food comes from. “The school garden education is really powerful, said Ridout. “A light goes off in a kid’s heads when they see a bulb, and they realize it is a carrot.” Research from John Hopkins also suggests that when people shift from passive consumers to co-producers of food, they may become more engaged in the food and political systems and motivated to address other issues in their communities.
As urban gardens continue to proliferate communities, there will inevitably be more data on their impact economic and environmental impact. But we must not dismiss that which we cannot measure. Food is core to our existence as humans and having a bond with the Earth that creates it is invaluable.
If you are interested in volunteering or donating to Community Grows, visit its website.