Why We Call Them “Community Gardens”

Last I checked, we don’t refer to our neighborhood gardens as “local gardens” or “animal rights gardens” or “foodie’s delight gardens” or “weight-loss gardens” or even “environmentally friendly gardens”.

When friends and neighbors come together for any number of reasons and start a communal garden – as the late Sally Wylde and her then husband did in Oakhurst back in 1994 – it is first and foremost referred to as a “community garden.”

While the central tenet of “community” may seem glaringly obvious when looked at it in this specific way, this component is one that is often ignored in many of the larger conversations about “local food”.  Big picture questions about what it means, who it should be helping, and who it ultimately reports to.

As the popularity of “local food” has evolved out of the “Back to the Land” movement of the 1970s and entered the mainstream, it has quickly been claimed by nearly every conceivable “cause” in the country.

To the ardent environmentalist, local food is a way to wean ourselves off cheap energies like oil.  To those with great concern for animals, it can be an alternative to becoming a strict vegetarian.  For those interested in worker’s rights, it’s a way to support a local farmer, who isn’t hiring for positions so grueling that only the most desperate among us will apply for them.  To the “foodie” (“gourmand” if you’re old-school) it’s all about taste.  To the nutritionist, it’s the commonsensical respite from a decade of powerful, mainstream diet fads.  And so on.

However, the vast promise in the simple act of “eating locally” has also, in some ways, become its own Achilles heel.

On the same day that Decatur learned that it had lost the founder of the Oakhurst Community Garden to cancer, an op-ed appeared in the New York Times taking on many of the claims that locavores tout when talking about the differences in environmental burden between “local” food and stuff that comes off the industrial food chain.

Here’s a brief selection…

…the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

…It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture…Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

Mr. Budansky’s claims maybe new to the pages of the New York Times, which has done local food advocacy than nearly any other national publication, but it turns out that the “more practical advocates of local food” are already well aware of the shaky arguments when it comes to a simplistic “food-miles” argument.  From Paul Roberts apocalyptically titled “The End of Food“…

“Although reducing the distance traveled by a food product would seem to be an automatic gain for sustainability, this isn’t always the case.  A semi driving several tons of produce 312 miles from a mega-farm in the Salinas Valley to a Wal-Mart in Reno may seem an egregious waste of energy, but it actually burns less fuel than would the dozens of pickup trucks needed to haul the same quantity of produce to a farmer’s market in Reno from local farms just twenty miles away.”

Well crap.  Right?

Not really.  Instead of lamenting the fallibility of this easy way of looking at a very complex problem, we should see this newly highlighted critique to remind us that local food practices effect the world around us in a vast number of ways.  “Food miles” is just one argument within the larger environmental argument for more locally sourced food ( “external costs” associated with large amounts of waste is another big environmental concern), which is just one argument within the larger, complete argument in favor of local food.

However, as long of local food is propped up against conventional agriculture as an alternative, many people will see it through their issue of choice.  Health, environment, taste.  You name it.

I would just suggest that all of these “issues” and “causes” associated with local food aren’t truly end-games.  Though they may be dire, life-threatening forecasts, they are really just secondary effects. I was recently reminded of this, after reading Allison’s touching tribute to Sally Wylde over on her blog Southern Urban Homestead.  In the end, it’s all about the strong relationships that develop out of a common purpose.

If local food truly has an end-game or a “virtue” (Budansky claims it doesn’t), it is its ability to create and maintain communities. Communities of neighbors, farmers, cooks and gardeners, sharing information and a love of food (and by extension, their natural environment).  That’s truly why people stay passionate about such a movement.  That’s why we call them “community gardens” or “community-supported agriculture” and not something else.

All that other stuff, while important, is really just gravy.

5 thoughts on “Why We Call Them “Community Gardens””

  1. I’m an enthusiastic local gardener, and I don’t grow stuff for environmental reasons.
    My home-grown tomato tastes infinitely better than a store-bought tomato.

    Instead of going to the gym to exercise, I exercise in the sunshine and can feed my family from my garden. Fresh basil tastes so good in eggs, and it’s so easy to grow.

    It’s enormously satisfying to plant something, watch it grow and ripen and produce something tasty.

    I guess I’m doing something good for the environment. I have a compost heap and my banana peels, grass clippings, fall leaves and egg shells wind up in the compost instead of in a landfill somewhere.

    1. Ahhhh, yes– have you ever mixed fresh basil, dill, chives, and marjoram into scrambled eggs? Makes ’em a little Dr. Suess-y in color, but oh, so delicious!

      Right on about a garden tomato. Along about November is when I start craving them in earnest, even after glutting myself with them all summer…

  2. The Neighborly Arts

    ” As they strolled along the streets of a German town, Röpke pointed, with satisfaction, to the many small vegetable gardens kept by the residents of city. The economist shook his head disapprovingly and grumbled. “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs.” Whereupon Röpke responded, “But perhaps a very efficient way of producing human happiness.”

  3. DM: “In the end, it’s all about the strong relationships that develop out of a common purpose.”

    That’s it exactly! “I want to get to know my neighbors” is the #1 sentiment expressed by folks coming out to be a part of our neighborhood’s greenspace effort. Even the headaches of getting it started serve the purpose of building bonds. Folks with an avid interest in gardening likely already have a backyard patch or a patio pot of tomatoes going. It really IS the people, not the plants. Folks are hungry for deeper community roots. Community gardening offers the perfect opportunity to build friendships in a relaxed & positive environment.

Comments are closed.