By Mimi Rook

Community Gardens: A Solution to Food Deserts

Earlier this year, Cincinnati City Council member Laure Quinlivan began an effort to send mobile produce trucks into Camp Washington, Fairmount, Avondale, Westwood, the East End, Evanston, Northside, Over-the-Rhine, the West End, and Winton Hills. Quinlivan was targeting a number of Cincinnati neighborhoods classified by the United States Department of Agriculture, as food deserts.

Food deserts are areas where residents cannot easily access sources of wholesome food product, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fresh dairy, meats, etc. In urban neighborhoods such as the ones listed above, the nearest fresh food source, (usually a Kroger’s grocery store) is over one mile or more away. High percentages of residents who live there have limited incomes, and many have no personal transportation. They depend on bus routes, neighbors, expensive taxicab rides, or – if they are capable – their own two feet, to get to a grocery store. That grocery store might as well be in another country for the amount of effort involved to get there.

Once they reach the store, another problem is getting those weighty sacks of groceries home. The amount of thought, time, and effort involved to do so can take up the better part of a day. Planning and eating wholesome food becomes more than just “what am I going to eat today?” It is an obstacle course of challenges, requiring a discipline that even those with the best intentions rarely possess.

Urban food deserts also house convenience stores, gas stations, and fast food restaurants selling highly-processed, high-fat, high-salt, and high-sugar foods, providing little to no nutritional value. Despite higher markups, for the same items they could buy at a grocery store, they don’t involve the time, cost, physical effort and frustrations of getting to and from that store. Not so coincidentally, they are also areas with high rates of obesity and other diet- related health problems such as diabetes and heart problems.

Rarely does another problem get mentioned — the ugliness of food deserts. Not only are such places usually lacking the green space of well-kept yards and parks, but also quite often, there just aren’t any. Food from these convenience stores, gas stations, and fast food restaurants is all about wrappers.

Getting to the food, which is bagged, boxed, wrapped not just once, but frequently twice, means that such neighborhoods are full of trash and waste. The wrappers, cups, lids and straws, and leftover food, litter sidewalks, yards, and streets. Trash receptacles are overflowing and/or ignored, and the coverings around the so-called “food” are simply tossed on the ground along the path of travel.

Sometimes these problems are the kick-start for change. Sometimes that change is a community garden.

These are gardens large enough to yield food and flowers for personal use and more importantly, to share garden-grown products with friends and neighbors. When such gardens thrive, they become more than a cost-effective alternative to buying and accessing fresh food.

A successful community garden also creates an “inner” transformation in the lives of those who build up that garden. There is a unique and fulfilling pleasure of sharing in its bounty with others. A barren, weed-infested, trash-strewn parcel of land is restored, transforming the neighborhood where it exists.

Most other types of gardens are places of refuge to escape into, rather than a place of engagement in the community. The effort involved in a community garden yields much more than a green refuge. On an emotional level, it elevates work to a rewarding return, on an investment of time and energy. It connects a community to the beauty and abundance of nature, which is meant to be shared, not hoarded.

Just like community gardening, Cincinnati Living Green will expose you to the positive forces of change in Cincinnati. Expect to read about the resistance efforts here, to reverse the trend of inner and outer “desertification” of our neighborhoods, and our citizens.

Our city has plenty of problems. The purpose of this column is to focus on the green solutions, the forward thinking, and community benefits, resulting from the efforts of those who have decided, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, to, “be the change you want to see.” This is a different kind of “war on poverty;” it is a war on poverty of our thinking and our actions.

Change our thinking, and we can change the world. Cincinnati Living Green is a front line view of the battle to restore the health, heart, thinking, and spirit of our city.

Next up: The Civic Garden Center of Cincinnati: A Great Place to Begin Community Gardening