Urban Gardening: Growing a Sustainable Food System for All

Earlier this year, if you had asked me to tell you what a “gardener” looked like, I might have painted you a mental picture of someone not unlike my father: a white, middle-aged man who decided to take up gardening as a hobby after realizing he had more empty space in his rural Texas backyard than he knew what to do with. After spending a weekend shadowing the nation’s largest garden-building event, however, I have to admit that my idea of who a “gardener” is and what a “garden” looks like has dramatically changed.

Now, I’m more apt to picture an African American mother and daughter in the city, growing vegetables in a 4’x8’ victory garden and using their culinary skills to provide sustenance to malnourished neighbors. Or I might tell you about the Syrian refugee families using a small patch of soil in their front yard as a way to bring back a sense of normalcy to their uprooted lives.

And yet these were just two of the countless “faces of gardening” that I encountered during this spring’s annual Victory Garden Blitz in Milwaukee. Organized by the local non-profit Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), the annual Blitz aims to engage Milwaukee residents to grow their own food, and in the process help cultivate a community-based, socially just, environmentally sustainable food system. With the help of over 300 volunteers, VGI manages to install hundreds and hundreds of raised bed gardens to residents of diverse backgrounds and housing situations each year; no backyard needed! All that’s required is a 4’x8’ outdoor space to put the garden, and a willingness to get your hands a little dirty!

 “One of the great things about gardening is that it brings people of all faiths and political backgrounds and races and ethnicities together,” VGI Community Programs Manager Kelly Moore Brands told me during the event. “Because everybody needs to eat, right?”

Beyond the diversity of the gardeners themselves, one of the other noteworthy things was the sheer variety of reasons why people took up urban gardening in the first place. Here are just a few of the things I heard while out and about in Milwaukee:

  •  “It’s traditional, it’s multigenerational, it’s cultural, it’s for everybody. Everybody eats.”
  • “It’s so motivating when you know the people that you’re working with and providing food for. Urban gardening really strengthens neighborhood bonds.”
  • “Technology is making our connection to nature seem unnecessary. We’re becoming dependent on it. Gardening helps give me a sense of self-sufficiency. Of returning to my roots”
  • “Having access to affordable healthy food no matter where you live is important to me. Nothing beats grabbing a tomato from your garden and putting it on a sandwich.”

After a weekend of memorable quotes and colorful characters, I really got a sense of what Island Press author Michael Carolan identifies as the crucial missing ingredient from our current food movements: human connection. In his new book No One Eats Alone: Food as a Social Enterprise, Carolan argues that building community is the key to healthy, equitable, and sustainable food. 

Victory Garden Initiative is doing just that, and I can’t wait to see what they have in store for their big 10th anniversary Blitz in 2018 as they continue the food movement to MOVE GRASS and GROW FOOD!

For more on my exciting, inspiring weekend in Milwaukee, check out the video below where I interview VGI staff and victory garden recipients about the power and promise of urban gardening.

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