Community Gardens: Equity, Equality, Eggplant

It's More About the People than the Plants

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Nan Fey is chairperson of the Food Policy Council in Madison, Wis.

Helen Schnoes is the food policy coordinator for Douglas County, Kan.

Connie Fitzpatrick is a board member of the Douglas County Food Policy Council based in Lawrence, Kan.

Posted: Wednesday, October 25, 2017 2:51 pm

Community gardening isn't undertaken for the health and well-being of squash and tomatoes. Rather, it is all about the people who otherwise have limited access to fresh, nutritious foods.

That's why groups in Madison, Wis., and Douglas County, Kan., have focused on developing food systems that include community gardening and that make equity a central part of their framework.

The City of Madison’s formal support for community gardens dates back to the 1990s. The city established a Food Policy Council to bring together groups in the community to advance food system issues. Nan Fey is its chairperson. She told an audience at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa, that the FPC's mission is to "drive policies, programs, and collaborative resources to support the development of a sustainable local and regional food system that supports equitable access to healthy, culturally appropriate food, nutrition education, and economic opportunity."

The FPC is incorporating community gardens into a larger discussion of urban agriculture, and working to include appropriate goals and actions in Madison's 20-year comprehensive plan.

Fey points to a trend in interest in community gardening that begin locally in 1999 when an ad hoc group sprang up to study existing gardens. Some of these were on private property and being eliminated in favor of real estate development, she said. "That raised the question of how to preserve gardens and where to site new gardens that would be more secure to maintain."

The ad hoc approach gave way to a more official approach in 2005, when the Community Action Coalition (CAC) was established. In 2013, that group decided to shift some emphasis away from traditional community gardens to create stronger food pantry gardens, which generally devote their produce for distribution to food pantries, instead of individual growers. There, the food can be widely distributed to families who may not otherwise have access to these healthy foods.

In 2014 a collaboration began between the CAC and the Public Health Department of Madison & Dane County "to support the process of developing opportunities to strengthen and sustain community gardens as one component of a comprehensive approach to improving public health.” Visioning sessions with stakeholders resulted in a strategic plan later that year and in 2015 the partners formed the Gardens Network.

Network collaborators include the City of Madison and the County/University of Wisconsin Extension, which provides annual funding. Fey said its role has evolved from facilitation to funding horticultural support and garden design mentoring. Another collaborator is the non-profit organization Community Ground Works, which operates on a land-trust model. Finally, a Community Garden Leaders network helps with administrative functions.

"This has been a successful collaboration but it is still a work in progress," Fey said. "The group solved problems well during the transition of 2014 but it needs long-term sustainability, especially funding."

She noted there are advantages and disadvantages when working with non-profits rather than institutional partners. "Nonprofits are more nimble but their funding is less reliable. This can be a hurdle because gardens need to make capital investments in costly things, such as tractors," Fey said. Further, they've noticed that operations and leadership development take a lot of staff time, and that issues of liability insurance and lease requirements add many layers of complexity.

The Gardens Network group has also learned that adding new gardens is more difficult than supporting existing ones. A good example played out in an area of Madison known as Brittingham Park. The neighborhood is situated downtown between a traditional single-family neighborhood and a multi-family area with a high density of immigrant and lower income families.

When in 2010 there began to be pressure for more garden space downtown, Brittingham Park was identified as a possible location. The high-density sections of the neighborhood had some safety issues in part because of low foot traffic through the area. Local police saw a community garden as a good way to bring more people into the area, Fey said. From the social equity lens, it was seen as a way to improve lives for a Hmong community living in the neighborhood, for whom gardening is a traditional activity.

However, there was some resistance from other residents in the single-family area of the neighborhood. Fey said some were worried a garden would be messy and attract the "wrong kind of people" to the park. In 2012, community meetings began and the city council representative from the neighborhood was not supportive. One growing season was lost to disputes, Fey recounted.

In the fall of that year, the mayor proposed a policy of citing gardens in parks and the city moved forward. In 2013 the Brittingham Park site was chosen for a garden, and planting started that June. Deep waterlines were installed, but no fence surrounded the vegetables. "The bunnies feasted," Fey said.

In 2014, she said, a low cost, "aesthetically pleasing rabbit fencing" was installed. Safety in the park is much improved and there is good publicity in the local paper, according to Fey. "Neighbors formerly opposed have come to appreciate the garden," she added. Now the garden includes 38 spots and four raised beds, and it has a waiting list. The Hmong and elderly have priority for obtaining a spot.

There are also public art displays and seating areas. "Brittingham Park is a tremendous success story in town," Fey said. “Community gardens are about growing more than vegetables."

Future plans include an Urban Agriculture Work Group that will benefit from a new food system focused equity tool. "Equality doesn't mean equity," Fey said. "It is fairness, closing gaps that race, gender, income and others can use to predict people's success. Focusing on those at greatest disadvantage improves outcomes for everyone."

Equity and equality were also on the minds of the Douglas County, Kan., Food Policy Council when it looked for ways to move beyond traditional shortcomings in public engagement and planning processes. Instead, the FPC wanted to find an equitable way to create a countywide food systems plan.

Helen Schnoes is the food policy coordinator for Douglas County, which has a population of 118,000, but 94,000 of those people live in Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University.

The FPC was established by the County Commission in 2010. It convened as a joint city-county partnership in 2013. Its main work is to identify the benefits, challenges and opportunities for a successful food system. By representing a wide range of stakeholders it can recommend local policies.

When faced with this experiment in equitable food systems planning, Schnoes said, "the commissioners didn't want just another 'foodie liberal' pat yourself on the back plan from Lawrence." Instead, they wanted to be sure all voices were at the table. The 23-members group includes a no-till farmer and cattle producer, a state policy advocate, a retail food outlet, a youth representative, and people representing senior food nutrition programs, the health department, a farmers market, and sustainability advocates.

In spite of a potentially unwieldy structure, Schnoes said, the group notched several major accomplishments, including leveraging an initial $6,800 investment into more than a $1 million, and the development of a food systems plan, which was incorporated into the county's updated comprehensive plan. It sets a framework for the next 10 years to guide policy changes by local governments, shape the work of the FPC, and inspire community actions and partnerships.

Schnoes said the food systems plan defines "how we produce, buy, eat, and dispose of food." It recognizes that the "journey our food takes from field to plate is influenced by eco-systems, education, culture, funding, research and public policies."

The food systems plan describes several benefits a strong local food system can bring, including economic vitality, wellness, ecological resilience and equity.

Nearly a year's worth of community effort led to the plan, starting in winter 2016. That included an assessment, 13 focus groups with community organizations, a survey with 480 respondents, five public forums throughout the county, goal setting, and finally, the development of objectives and policies.

"This was way more complex than we thought," Schnoes said.

As a government entity, the FPC was strong at certain functions such as setting policy, she said, but not so strong at other functions, like providing guidance and advice to decision makers, like an advisory group might do. Or, at developing short-term participation in projects with the opportunity to offer recommendations, like a task force might do.

That's when the FPC noticed the work of the Sunrise Project, a new nonprofit organization in the area. "They were open to questioning the status quo, trying to do equity work. They had a program lens instead of just a policy and local government lens," Schnoes said.

The Sunrise Project empowers people to live healthy, self-determined lives through engagement with food and the environment. It aims to create space and opportunities for all people, especially those who are too often marginalized and underrepresented, to be heard and given power. "The Food Plan Equity Project was a perfect fit for Sunrise Project’s mission," Schnoes said.

The FPC shifted $45,000 in grant funds to hire eight part-time, temporary community coordinators to gather local input about the food system. Schnoes said the two organizations purposely didn't want to hire people with extensive background in food systems because they didn't want to determine in advance what would be needed.

Connie Fitzpatrick was one of the coordinators. She is a medical interpreter for uninsured people and active in the University of Kansas/Haskell University Women of Color Collective. To become a good community coordinator she learned to interview volunteers and collect stories about people's relationship to food. She focused her story collection on people of color, LGBTQ and bilingual individuals.

"Everyone's relationship to food is different," Fitzpatrick said. "If you think about community as a spider web you have someone to represent each sector. That brings us closer to equity."

She said this was the first time she had worked in collaboration with such a diverse team. "I loved it and hope this framework will be implemented in other areas of county and city plans," she said.

Schnoes said the FPC learned lessons about working at the community organizer level. They had to be very flexible with the schedules of people they hired because those people had complicated and busy lives.

"We needed to get rid of top-down structures, but that can be hard within local government timelines," Schnoes said. On reflection, they might have chosen a different method for story collection and documentation systems. There wasn't much time for individual coordinators to gather and share together, learning from each other. "The best way to share is by retelling stories, not comparing spread sheets," she said.

From this work the FPC has developed goals to strive for in the future:

Goal 1: Agricultural producers, food entrepreneurs, and food sector workers thrive in our regional economy.

Goal 2: As our cities grow, we prioritize natural resource conservation and maintain working lands to promote soil health.

Goal 3: We build and design our communities to ensure food access, foster health, and eliminate food deserts.

Goal 4: Our community fosters an equitable food system.

Goal 5: Our community eliminates waste in our local food system.

Schnoes advises other communities to "keep the goal to build an equitable food system front and center. Don't assume you know what communities need — go work with them first and find out."

Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-first Century (University of Iowa Press).

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