With blooming potted vegetables at my feet, I stood in front of Brian at Beacon Apartments, a permanent housing site for the formerly homeless. Brian smiled and shook my hand and began to tell me about his gardens. He chuckled while he talked about his new friends with whom he shared a garden. “They’re not just your neighbors anymore,” he said, “they’re your friends.” Brian told me about how he potted all of these plants in hope to give them to others who don’t have a garden, or who don’t know how to garden. Humbly, he shared his story of how he had already given away dozens of plants to the McDonald’s employees because they are “good to him” and often give him free coffee. But still, after all of his wonderful stories and inspiring actions, Brian mostly gardens because he needs and wants the food security in the winter, and hopes to stay busy while he overcomes a drug addiction.
As I drove back to my dorm after my meeting with Brian, I couldn’t help but think about what a community garden meant to Brian — and not only to Brian, but to all community gardeners. I entered my internship with Vermont Community Garden Network (VCGN) with the initial assumption that community gardens were only beneficial for food security. I understood them to be a means of affordable produce and a healthy lifestyle, but to my surprise, I found that community gardens are so much more than just food. Through garden education, interviews, and a survey, I found that community gardens offer a place to express one’s cultural heritage, an opportunity to mend one’s mental health, and an environment to form an intricate network of support. With these benefits, community gardens are a force against poverty and a tool to strengthen communities.
VCGN regularly aids community gardens, gardeners, and garden leaders across Vermont. Most of the garden sites serve underserved populations, such as veterans, low-income families, seniors and more. At one particular garden, the Family Room Garden, I worked mainly with immigrant and new American families who came from an agricultural background. Paw Wah, a Burmese woman with a shining smile, grew up gardening with her parents. When she arrived in Vermont, she faced many challenges, such as a new climate and the array of unfamiliar vegetables accompanied by a lack of familiar vegetables native to Burma. Because of the Family Room Garden, Paw Wah found other gardeners who could answer questions about transplanting tomatoes and caring for cucumbers. Meanwhile, Olga, an outgoing Russian woman, continues a tradition of agriculture which has been in her family for generations. When she lived in Russia, she raised nearly every morsel of food that she consumed, but only with the help and support of her grandparents. Two years ago, with no family and a young toddler, Olga lacked the resources to raise her own food in the United States. Luckily, similar to Paw Wah, Olga discovered the Family Room Garden where she found childcare for her toddler and support to practice her agricultural heritage.
West of the Family Room Garden, many seniors found their way outside and into the garden at Ethan Allen Residence. Astrid, a senior battling Alzheimer’s disease, rarely lifted her head or managed a smile. However, once their garden was in place and VCGN began the garden programming, Astrid found something familiar that brightened her day. She attended every garden activity and slowly began to interact, then smile, and then laugh. Being outside and harvesting flowers and vegetables added new light and clarity to Astrid’s life, along with many other seniors at the facility. In a neighboring town, Kelly, a garden-loving veteran, and many of his formerly-homeless veteran friends, found similar relief to mental health issues. As a result, veteran and senior gardening programs are springing up rapidly across Chittenden County in order to take advantage of such a simple and healthy method of healing.
Finally, in all of the gardens where I worked, I found people growing community. Brian and his garden friends built relationships and shared food. People of different colors, ethnicities, and languages all come together at the Family Room Garden to share food, garden tips, and childcare. Just as Paw Wah received garden tips and Olga received childcare, adults and children alike build relationships with people in their community because they have the opportunity to bond over one very strong similarity: food. I also saw this community forming in low-cost housing sites, senior residences, and even gardening classes. Many people without family, a secure home, or a secure income come to the garden to find friendship, support, and stability. Through my survey, which addressed food security reasons for joining community gardens and their benefits, I found that 74% of the participants joined the community garden in search for more activities within their communities and 64% were seeking a stronger community. In addition, 91% of the participants had met new people after joining. The evidence of the gardens answering the cry for a stronger community was clear.
All of these benefits are wonderful in collaboration with one another, but they are fantastically valuable when associated with poverty relief. Overcoming poverty is much more than just having enough money; it is about having autonomy over one’s life and overcoming obstacles that inhibit one’s basic functionings. VCGN presents opportunities for people to gain autonomy and rise above those obstacles. For example, the executive director of VCGN made the point that a food shelf (an organization that provides free food to those in need) is great if one normally consumes the traditional American cuisine. However, it is quite far from a satisfying hunger-relief tool for many low-income, immigrant, and new American families when the food is neither traditional nor packaged in one’s native language. Therefore, in allowing people to produce their own culturally preferred foods, the community gardens ensure food security and food dignity to all.
In addition, mental health problems are often a large barrier to those attempting to overcome poverty, whether by achieving a livable wage or gaining control over one’s life. With the support of community gardens, veterans, seniors, former drug addicts, and many others can utilize an affordable and healthy way to restore their mental health through outdoor activity and healthy food. Although community gardens alone cannot heal people, they are a great foundation that allows people autonomy over choices and their health.
Finally, a support system is perhaps one of the most valuable tools for overcoming obstacles and fighting against poverty. It is essential to incarceration prevention, rehabilitation after incarceration, food security and sometimes even housing security. Community gardens provide a perfect environment for building relationships and strengthening community — especially for the formerly homeless.
I left my internship in Vermont feeling inspired and motivated. Often, the issues of poverty are overwhelming, and the task of finding solutions is just as challenging. But through the Shepherd internship and VCGN, I’ve realized that small movements can be an effective tool against poverty and a great place to start. As people join the community garden, they can feel a sense of agency and empowerment over their own lives and their own food. I believe that like VCGN, organizations across the country can implement community gardens in order to be a powerful force against poverty. Whether a small urban garden or a large rural garden, people of all backgrounds can reap the benefits of a healthy gathering around food. Community gardens will continue to defend people against the threats of poverty and strengthen our communities through food autonomy, improved mental health, and a strong support system.
All of these people gave me permission to use their stories and names in publications.