photos by Anne Matte, article contributions by Kenzie Busekist

How community gardens create an oasis in the middle of a food desert

Many people take fresh produce for granted. But some people can’t get it simply because of a lack of transportation, availability or affordability.

“A food desert is a certain geographic area where people are lacking easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, meat, bread, that kind of thing,” says Danny Akright, the communications manager for the Food Bank of Iowa. “Staple foods, not just nonperishable foods that you would be able to get at a convenience store.”

Food deserts affect 23.5 million Americans and, ironically, are a common occurrence in the Midwest, despite the vast amount of high quality farmland in the region. They exist in sparsely populated rural areas where the closest grocery store can be 40 miles away. But in similarly ironic fashion, they can also develop in densely populated urban areas where there isn’t any room for grocery stores.

Judy Robbins is a project associate at The Food Trust, a nonprofit organization working to increase the availability of affordable, healthy food. “If you’re a busy mom and you have two kids, and to get fresh produce you have to take multiple buses, and then when you get there it’s really expensive – most likely you are going to make the day-to-day choice that’s easier, which is buying what’s closest to you,” Robbins says. “The impacts of not having access to a grocery store or not having access to affordable produce can lead to high rates of diet-related diseases, like cardiovascular disease or diabetes and things of that nature.”

Community Gardening

College sophomore Lindsay Finnell stirs up compost in the back corner of a small community garden in Des Moines, Iowa. Soon she will set up tents over the cilantro and arugula plants, protecting them from impending frosts. Right now, there are only six outdoor gardening beds, but she is expanding a pergola so that it will be easier to grow vining produce like strawberries and tomatoes.

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Lindsay Finnell turning compost for the Sprout Garden

Finnell is the head of Sprout, a community garden that aims to educate urban youth in Des Moines. At the Sprout garden, local kids learn how to grow their own food, while also having the opportunity to take some of the produce home with them.

Finnell started work with the Sprout garden in the spring of 2017, despite having no previous experience with community gardens.

“I’ve always gardened in the context of my own family and my own home,” Finnell says, “I thought it would be really cool to have a way to use that knowledge and skills to give back to someone or something larger than myself.”

grass ceilingIn addition to Sprout’s six garden beds, there is also an outdoor classroom, trellis and compost heap. The garden grows a variety of produce and herbs: strawberries, cilantro and orange cucumbers, perfect for soils with low nutrients. “When people first look at them, they think our cucumbers are going bad and they only take the biggest ones,” Finnell says. “They’re actually a variety of cucumber that’s been enriched with beta-carotene so they are packed with nutrients.”

Community members are welcome to harvest produce during open garden hours on Saturday mornings, and the Boys and Girls Club of Central Iowa comes in on Wednesday evenings, but Finnell wants more community involvement. Several additions are in the works to provide better access, including a shade pergola and porch swing. “Most importantly, we’re going to create a mini-garden outside of the [gates] that anyone can come pick from at anytime,” she says. “It’ll be a nice place to hang out.”

Finnell works with a group of volunteers to harvest the food and place it in a food pantry outside the garden for community members. Interestingly, she says no one she works with has seen anyone taking food from the garden, outside of the workshops Finnell and other volunteers lead for The Boy and Girls Club of Central Iowa. But once the workers are gone, food in the pantry quickly disappears.

Finnell hopes to get community members more involved in the garden, growing, composting and harvesting produce themselves, instead of only reaping the benefits. She has plans in the works that will teach community members about the value of  composting, as well as winter gardening.

“The problem is that people just don’t know enough about the garden,” says Finnell.

Home Gardening

Penny Johnson apprenticed at a restaurant in Paines, Alaska that grew its own food to cook and serve to patrons. They had no choice. Because of the restaurant’s remote location, they had limited access to fresh food.

In Alaska, it is definitely garden to table, because we otherwise wouldn’t have had fresh produce,” says Johnson. She learned how to cultivate and prepare healthy, fresh meals during her apprenticeship and still uses her knowledge to grow and cook her own food.

Today, Johnson spreads her knowledge as an urban farming educator, teaching people how to grow their own produce with Tower Garden — an aeroponic and vertical, gardening system.

Aeroponic gardens don’t require soil. Instead, they grow the produce by circulating enriched water over the plants’ roots. This process delivers vitamins and minerals directly to the plant, making growth more efficient. The gardens stand at five feet tall and can grow up to 28 plants at one time — convenient for families with limited space.

“You can grow anything that is not a root vegetable, because there is no soil,” Johnson says. “We’ve grown zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and other things.”

Ideally, this easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables will lead to healthier meals. Johnson helps families, classrooms and even The Boys and Girls Club use aeroponic gardens to grow produce. “I get to talk to people about their health and their family’s health,” Johnson says, “I get a joy out of teaching people to feed themselves.”

Community gardens and home gardens help mitigate the effect of food deserts, but there is still plenty of room for improvement, especially in the winter. Johnson encourages the use of her indoor gardening method for the winter so that families can have access to fresh produce year-round; Finnell is planning to introduce special cold-weather equipment to the Sprout garden beds to extend the growing season.

Akright suggests another approach to proactively prevent food deserts: shopping at local businesses in the neighborhood.

Supporting the local grocery stores, keeping small town business going is a great way to keep that grocery desert from forming,” Akright says. “Not only are you keeping the fields of those fresh fruits and vegetables and those important foods in that community, but you are also providing the economic benefit of having that job supplier in that community to keep that town alive.”