Why We Garden, Part 3: Responsibility

Back when there was no such thing as the green movement, the food justice movement, or the organic movement, people gardened.  Before the industrial revolution and the rise of urban societies there was almost nobody who didn’t garden in some form or another; and in our recent history, most of our grandparents or great grandparents gardened to survive the World Wars and the Depression.  People have gardened in various ways and for various reasons since the beginning of time.  We are not entrepreneurs, pioneers or trailblazers.  We stand last in a long line of people who have held rakes and picked dirt from their fingernails throughout history.

But in another sense, people who garden nowadays actually are pioneers.  The reality is, there’s no reason we have to garden.  Most of us can drive to our local grocer and find anything we want at a reasonable price — we can survive quite well without ever having to put our hand to the plow.  So people who do choose to garden today do so for reasons other than sustenance and survival.  This series of posts has reflected on some of these motivations, but the “movements” mentioned at the beginning of this post reflect a different kind of motivation, motivations that aren’t primarily personal or recreational but draw from the social, economic, and environmental implications of a homegrown onion.

The danger of writing a post about the different movements that inspire gardeners is that we risk classifying those who garden and those who do not as either concerned or unconcerned with the various issues, but this oversimplifies the matter.  There are plenty of people who garden diligently but think the green movement is something led by Kermit the frog or crazy Irish people.  And there are people deeply concerned with environmental justice issues who do not garden because of certain practical limitations.  So this post is not about advancing a certain agenda or aligning gardeners politically, and it’s not supposed to be a slap on the back to gardeners and a slap in the face to non-gardeners, but it is about highlighting some of the benefits of gardening that you may or may not have been aware of when you first started digging holes.

Environmental Concerns – One of the growing motivations for gardening these days is that it offers an alternative to some of the environmentally harmful practices associated with major food production.  The first environmental issue often raised involves the distance your food has to travel to get to you.  The produce in your grocery store was probably grown thousands of miles from where you live, which means trucks and ships loaded with oil, emitting greenhouse gasses, were used to bring you your carrot.  Also, the further you are from your food source the less likely you are to concern yourself with the sustainability of the farming procedures.  If the forest next to your kids’ teeter-totter is burned down for a big factory farm that sprays pesticides, you might raise an eyebrow, but when it happens in a country across the Gulf we don’t offer it much thought. Thus, many people have taken up gardening because they don’t want to rely on major grocery stores that draw from large-scale food producers; and instead of eating a tomato that took I-75 up from Florida, they’ll settle for the one that made the walk with them from the backyard.

Social Concerns- A few months ago a friend and I road-tripped to Milwaukee for an Avett Brother’s concert, and before we drove to the concert hall we stopped at a community gardening headquarters called Growing Power. There’s a lot that could be written about our time there, but one of the simplest lessons I learned is that gardening in urban settings is about far more than environmentalism and the green movement, it’s about health and justice for people living in low-income, urban neighborhoods.  Here’s the gist of it:

Major supermarket grocery stores, by and large, cannot survive in low-income neighborhoods because the residents do not have the excess cash or savings to purchase large quantities of groceries at one time.  They cannot go to the supermarket and fill a cart with food for the week, which is exactly what supermarkets are designed for.  So instead, low-income neighborhoods are littered with corner stores, fast-food restaurants, and mini-marts that offer cheap, high calorie processed food that can be bought in small quantities over and over again.  The result is, of course, extremely unhealthy diets for low-income residents.  The concept of a community garden, then, is to provide access to affordable healthy food for the people of these neighborhoods.  Community gardens are often organized and subsidized by a non-profit organization, but are worked by the people of the neighborhoods, and everyone gets to eat fresh vegetables at the end of the day.

Even beyond urban community gardening, the social benefits of gardening are significant.  Whenever someone gardens their own produce, shops at a farmer’s market, or buys from a local grower, he or she ensures that the person who worked the land and picked your pepper receives a fair wage for their effort.  The same cannot be said for most large factory farms that hire workers who may or may not be legal citizens and may or may not earn a livable wage.  As nice as it is to enjoy a ripe tomato in the middle of December for a price that doesn’t make us return our kids’ Christmas toys, part of the reason we can do this is because someone else didn’t get paid much to pull that tomato.  Gardening is one way to avoid relying on that type of production.

Economic Advantages– This last discussion is probably the most universal in its appeal:  Gardening can save you some money.  Well, this is not entirely honest.  Gardening may save you money, but it will cost you time and energy, energy that could have been used making money doing something like delivering pizzas or mowing lawns (Yes, these are awesome ways to make that extra cash you need for baseball cards and firecrackers).  Anyway, the obvious point is that when I collect a bucketful of strawberries at the end of June, this means I don’t have to go buy strawberries for my wife’s inevitable pie – an annual symbol of summer.  More homegrown veggies means less money spent at the grocery store, less trips to the supermarket for those carrots we swore were still in the back of the fridge, and less money spent eating at restaurants because, of course, homegrown veggies and good ol’ home-cooking make a friendly pair.  There is nothing profound about this.  If you are tired of spending so much on groceries or at mediocre restaurants, start gardening.

(pie image borrowed from here, city image taken from Growing Power)

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2 comments on “Why We Garden, Part 3: Responsibility

  1. J.S. Bangs says:

    Mmmm…. pie.

    The most interesting part of your post, for me, was the comment about why grocery stores can’t compete in low-income neighborhoods. I’d never heard that explanation before, but it’s a valuable, important point.

  2. Travis says:

    Great post, a couple 13,14 good points were made. Its also nice getting referenced in your blog without it being attached to my inclination towards the unlimited simple graces of the bachelor life (for the record, I’ve never watched Most Extreme Elmination Challenge, give me some credit. when I wake up in a pile of my own Doritos there is usually a cerebral documentary glowing on the tv…or at least the Simpsons).

    I actually wanted to touch on a point you made above regarding the inequalities in access to nutritious foods in inner city neighborhoods. Our current food system makes it possible for a highly processed bag of junk food (with ingredients being shipped from all over the world) to cost only $2.00 for 1,000 calories while the same amount of calories from vegetables would cost closer to $20. Nevermind the burdensome costs that some middle class folks choose to take on to eat “socially responsible” at co-ops offering “organic” or local foods, having a food system that all but requires folks with less money in their pocket books to feed their children Cheetos rather than carrots is broken. It means that there is a huge need for the re-emergence of the family garden and urban garden movements like the one you mentioned to provide affordable access to nutritious foods for low income families.

    Good stuff, Jared.

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