Seeds of Change

Gardens for Empowerment uses community agriculture to bring people together

 A sticky challenge for the twenty-first-century food system movement is a sense—by some—that the whole thing is motivated by a nostalgic desire to return to a time when families, and indeed whole communities, came together around the table. That motivation is too easily dismissed by those who find the “slow food” idea incompatible with modern life.

But while the fundamental of community building does in fact underlie the new farm-to-table movement, there is a growing recognition that sustainable and healthy food systems can actually build community before the food reaches the table. In fact, that community building may be necessary in order for the food to get to the table in the first place.

Gardens for Empowerment is the genuine article. G4E is about “trans-forming the physical environment of impoverished neighborhoods with the goals of neighborhood violence prevention, increasing social capital, beautification, building local food systems, community organizing and empowerment, economic development, and youth leadership development.” That seems like a lot to ask of a garden. But the G4E model is a holistic approach to systemic issues that uses gardens to bring people together to strengthen neighborhoods. Its genius is in its simplicity.

G4E partners make gardens the vehicles for encouraging active and inclusive participation to improve the look of a neighborhood, increase the availability of healthy food in that neighborhood and give neighbors a shared sense of purpose.

In the case of Madison’s Meadowood neighborhood, one of a handful targeted by G4E, this means homeowners and renters working together—directly addressing an underlying tension in the neighborhood of some homeowners feeling renters don’t care about the look of the neighborhood or its quality of life.

A significant source of strength of the project is the partners. Led by city public health nurses, teams of volunteers have been working in Meadowood for a couple of years now. G4E also includes the Department of Public Health, Madison and Dane County, but also Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, UW Extension, Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, Edgewood College’s Sustainability Leadership Graduate Program and, in the Meadowood neighborhood, Toki Middle School. That’s an impressive team that allows for goals like violence reduction and teen leadership skills development.

Together, these folks work with neighborhood residents to design, build and grow gardens, provide educational oppor-tunities and identify community assets. Residents have to work together and in partnership with local businesses and property owners. Gardens are planted in front yards and function as “community pickers plots,” harvesting produce for tenants and local food pantries. Put it all together and you have folks using gardens to get to know each other, care about the place where they live, help nurture young people and eat better. In the process community is developed. Brilliant.

The budget is not lavish. But some level of financial support is required. The Capital Area Regional Planning Commission provided a grant; Tom’s of Maine, a producer of organic stuff like toothpaste and deodorant chipped in two thousand bucks—nice touch. But about $15,000 more is needed. It’d be nice if they could get it because if this project works, G4E has plans for a backyard youth farm in the neighborhood, creation of value-added products from the produce grown, even purchase of a building to use as a Meadowood Urban Agriculture Center.

It’s exciting to think what that might mean to what many consider a troubled neighborhood right now. Food—both growing it and eating it—is a fundamental, social activity. We come together around the table. G4E makes it possible to come together before we even get to the table.

For more information on G4E contact Madison and Dane County public health nurse Kim Neuschel at 516-8317 or kneuschel@publichealthmdc.com.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband.

Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

Read more Genuine Articles columns here

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