We tend not to think of our consumption being conditioned by domination, but decisions of what kinds of foods to consume are for many not simply choices made in an environment of freedom. Working times, costs of food, available space, location of food sources, and all kinds of knowledge from food preparation to poisonous industrial practices condition whether one is able to acquire healthy and pleasing foods. Changing attitudes about food are difficult when people are besieged by the psychological treachery of advertising and the physiological affects of engineered food products themselves. The poisonous practices of the food system are not easy to individually escape, by buying organic at your local market for instance, when access is conditioned by wealth. Even access to processed and less than desirable produce is an issue for poor North Americans – who are now using food banks and food stamps at record-breaking proportions. On the other end, the destructive practices of large-scale corporate food production, from chemicals fertilizers, to terminator seeds, to land destruction, cannot be avoided.
As it becomes more obvious that our current models of food production and consumption are already failing many populations and are ultimately unsustainable, the question arises as to which alternatives to large industrial farming and corporate dominated food system are viable. A promising alternative model is community gardening: grassroots efforts to grow food in urban green spaces, managed by community participants. One might assume that these local operations would be ineffectual and inefficient in providing urban populations with food, but participation in existing gardens and research about urban gardening is showing not only that they can be economically efficient and environmentally practical, but that they also provide numerous individual and community benefits to health and well-being. They foster relationships with nature and community, and provide a space, which gratifies aesthetic needs and offers a different model of work. Community gardens may have a role to play in larger social transformation if we pay attention to their potential, especially when they are self-consciously made a food sovereignty project.
Researchers at the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State researched the potential of urban home and community gardens in Detroit with some surprising results: with extended infrastructure such as greenhouses and adequate storage facilities, community agriculture has the potential to provide 76% of all vegetables and 42% of all fruits needed by the city. This sounds even more impressive when we consider that the carbon footprint of food production and distribution is reduced because of less oil intensive methods of farming and less energy consumption in transportation. While these benefits alone might make us take a closer look at urban agriculture as part of an alternative food system, the social and individual benefits of having and participating in urban gardens are also coming to be acknowledged.
While more research is needed, empirical studies into green spaces and community gardening have pointed to numerous ways in which interaction with such spaces contributes to individual and community well-being (without forgetting the difference between well-being and well-being under domination). These range from cognitive health benefits, to managing stress, to health rehabilitation. Research also suggests that gardens foster relationships of care and intimacy with others. Also established are the positive correlation between green environments and stronger social ties, along with a sense of safety, participation, and neighbourly assistance.
Community gardens promote healthy eating, but in doing so also build healthy individuals and communities. Studies suggest that those with links to community gardens are more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables more often. Participation in gardens increases aesthetic and emotional appeal of food and expands dietary possibilities. Youth participating in Detroit urban farming programs are more likely to try new things, and there is recognition that the type of gardening done promotes deeper relationships with food; including the ways that food brings people together, and builds a sense of responsibility and self-worth. Inter-generational conversation and learning occur in communal preparation of food and eating at a common table.
The cooperative process of growing food contributes to enjoyment with others, as well as developing social relationships based on reciprocity and trust. Studies based on interviews with gardeners found that they tend to be proud of the appearance and productivity of their gardens and tend to be motivated by this – a commitment to being responsible and productive. While some relationships of garden activity are formalized, others are based on forms of interpersonal trust. The community garden comes to be a place to share work, company, and produce – some gardeners end up giving away more than they consume. Typically, community gardeners find the work itself enjoyable and sociable. In all, some community garden projects point to the possibility of humanized production and human fulfilment by being sites of non-alienated production and exchange.
Participation in gardens also fosters ecological learning, an appreciation of nature that goes beyond understanding its use-value, the recognition of an inextricable attachment to the non-human biophysical world, and development of an understanding that this biophysical world has a tempo (a kind of subjectivity) all its own that we neglect at risk to our own health and the health of the non-human world. This sense of time and respect for biophysical processes is all the more important in a culture that has so separated itself from non-human nature, anaesthetized its human bodies for the sake of cycles of production and consumption, and has such an allergic reaction to the fluid and often dirty processes of life.
Discussions on community gardens often turn to the case of Detroit, and for good reason. Once a booming auto industry centre, Detroit City had become synonymous with industrial decline and urban decay in North America, long before the recent financial crisis – a decline marked by unemployment and poverty for an intercity majority Black population. The wake of population exodus and deindustrialization has meant social and economic decline and a negative impact on the food system. While reports that there are no grocery stores in Detroit are unfounded, Mari Gallagher’s 2007 documentation of Detroit ‘food deserts’ has relevance insofar as it highlighted areas in which economic and physical barriers limit access to affordable food. Detroit has many outlets with food, but this does not mean that distribution of food is not a problem because of access and quality – access and quality highlight the racial inequality in the city. For a number of factors from the availability of vacant land to the continuing poverty and unemployment, a vibrant urban and community farming movement has, for some years, filled a vital needs void and will play a larger role in the years ahead.
As suggested above, participants in urban garden projects tend to see them as more than mere food production projects. They are a rejection of processed food options and low quality produce that are considered options, and a demand for healthy food from sustainable environments. For groups like the D-Town Farm, the largest urban garden project in Detroit, the project is a rejection of the established food system itself, a way to produce and distribute food that prioritizes community ownership and environmental sustainability. Run by the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN), D-Town is framed as a food sovereignty political project. In a Democracy Now interview, Malik Yakini, the DBCFSN Chair, defined the project as a Black self-determination project that insists that any plan for urban agriculture in the city benefit the black majority. The community, he stated is “not interested…where the corporate sector comes in and only uses the majority of people as workers. We’re concerned about control and ownership.” The farm is meant to be a model not only of sustainable agriculture, but a model for social, economic, and political projects appropriate for the city. Monica White, a sociologist participating in the project, interviewed farmers deeply involved in the project and found time and again that the project “dealt with their efforts to be agents of their own transformation, and the city of Detroit by claiming the human right to food.” The project consciously “challenges the social structure that is supposed to provide access to healthy foods” – a challenge that rejects both government and the market and claims control of responsibility for itself. Yakini and other community garden activists are opposed to the potential of capitalization of urban gardening and the establishment of large, for-profit agricultural enterprise even when money managers promise productivity, tax revenues, and ‘decent jobs.’ Too many of the qualitative benefits, the phenomenological experience of aesthetic-productivity and the layers of personal and community relations and the reciprocity it fosters, would inevitably be destroyed – a return to wage, corporate, and other dependencies and all they entail.
While the urban food movement will have to find ways of embracing those who value the gardens differently (not all in any community agree with them or see them as long term projects) and those cynics who have yet to discover their value, a picture of the objective possibilities of these environments as part of a transformation certainly seems to be becoming clearer. It is time to consider how these decentralized, local food projects may initiate or enable a process of disintegration of capitalist mass food production, its system of unsustainable industrial farming and corporate supermarkets, not only because alternatives are becoming more necessary, but also because they appear to work better both economically and qualitatively. As suggested, a challenge to the way food is produced and consumed is a challenge to the way we understand and experience nature and our own aesthetic being; these most basic needs, as the social philosopher Marcuse stressed, “are the claims of the human organism, mind and body, for a dimension of fulfillment which can be created only in the struggle against the institutions which, by their very functioning, deny and violate these claims.” They can have a subversive quality and can therefore be a challenge to a whole way of life when germinated in the right climate. While urban garden projects are in no way sufficient for transforming the world, they can certainly have a positive role not only because of their material potential, but also because they foster relationships and sensibilities that challenge domination and open up new possibilities for human being.