Gardening's Saving Grace

Digging in the dirt to heal souls and neighborhoods

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Anyone who has stuck a seed in the ground has felt the magic of gardening -- that sense of connection with the earth and the rewards of stewardship. Now gardening activists have taken this therapeutic relationship to new levels by using gardens to transform the lives of marginalized groups -- the homeless, prisoners, alienated teens -- and are strengthening community and redefining food policy in the process.

Here are some examples:

  • Homeless people tending a vegetable and flower garden in Santa Cruz, California, gain skills, cash, and as its formerly homeless director Ray McMinn says, 'my peace and joy.' This 'Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project is one of some 500 CSAs nationwide,' reports Safe Food News (Summer 1995), in which consumers pay a yearly amount to farmers who supply them with fresh produce, herbs, and flowers.
  • Frequent and fanciful festivals symbolize the goals of Earth Celebrations, a community effort that's yielded 50 thriving gardens in former abandoned lots in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Creating the gardens -- and fending them off from urbanization -- has encouraged participants to take on other issues, notes founder Felicia Young in Earth Celebrations' Homepage. And the parties, with incredible costuming, puppets, multicultural dance, theater, music, and ritual, are proof that community empowerment is enhanced by artful joy, notes High Performance (Fall 1994).
  • Teens vie for jobs at garden plots in San Francisco's public housing developments, and some pursue college credit in horticulture classes taught by the project co-sponsor, San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG). Gardening is also a sought-after work-release activity for some San Francisco prisoners.
  • Blossoming community gardens and farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods make cheap, often organic produce easily available to those who normally can't afford it. In Philadelphia, 500 community gardens produced almost $2 million in fruits and vegetables last year, notes the Community Garden Site. As Barbara Ruben reports in Environmental Action (Summer 1995), these community gardens not only feed the hungry; they subvert destructive agricultural practices such as pesticide use and long-distance transport of food. They're part of a growing movement to link farmers, gardeners, environmentalists, and anti-hunger activists to create and legislate 'community food security.

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