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Cultivating Community Isn't that Easy

D.C.'s Public Gardens and Farms Dividing Neighborhoods

By Lindsay Maizland | 12/15/16 9:16pm | Updated 12/15/16 9:17pm

Farm Manager Brian Massey is in charge of everything agricultural, including harvesting the crops, at Common Good Farm.

Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

Green gloves strapped on and metal shovel in hand, Maria Oria encouraged volunteer Amanda Lewkowicz to get her hands dirty and really dig into the compost. Oria and Lewkowicz shoveled piles of decomposed food scraps and organic waste from one wooden bin to another. Nearby, the slogan “growing food, cultivating community” was painted on the side of a pavilion at Common Good City Farm, a non-profit urban farm surrounded by classic D.C. row houses in LeDroit Park near Howard University.

This is the ideal community garden/farm scenario: two strangers working together to not only grow vegetables but also cultivate a sense of community. D.C.’s 34 community gardens and five urban farms do more than develop meaningful relationships between neighbors. They are beds of environmental education, provide nutritious food unavailable to residents in some neighborhoods and add natural green spaces to the city. But they can also be sources of tension and dividing forces within neighborhoods.

Take Common Good City Farm, for example. Their produce goes to a 20 family community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, and a farm stand held every Thursday afternoon. Farm Manager Brian Massey explained that while their produce is generally priced around the same as D.C.’s other farmer’s markets, this higher pricing may exclude members of the neighborhood from the farm. “We know a bunch of this folks can afford to pay, but we also know a bunch of folks can’t,” said Massey.

Common Good tries to combat this by dedicating half of its CSA to lower-income families and fundraising in order to boost community members’ purchasing power.

But Common Good is not the only community green space challenged with creating an inclusive environment for all neighborhood residents. Josh Singer, D.C.’s Department of Parks and Recreation Community Garden Specialist, has seen what can go wrong when community garden organizers don’t intentionally include all community members.

“D.C. is experiencing some pretty crazy gentrification,” Singer said. “A lot of these communities are so used to being left out.”

As D.C. continues to gentrify, new residents move into communities and bring their visions of building community gardens with them. Singer said this can create problems in food insecure neighborhoods where people lack access to sufficient affordable and nutritious food. Fourteen percent of D.C. residents are food insecure, according to the Capital Area Food Bank. When gardens are fenced off and only 30 to 40 people, usually the newer residents, get a plot to grow their own food, “the rest of the community just views this as another opportunity they’r excluded from,” said Singer.

To avoid this exclusivity problem, some gardens have adopted a “hybrid model” – all individuals with personal plots must also maintain a public plot accessible to all. “It’s about trying to make our gardens inclusive to everyone rather than having whoever gets the plot first,” said Singer.

American University’s very own community garden is somewhat hidden on campus between the tennis courts and Leonard Hall, and it is open to all students and faculty and always unlocked. Although maintained by the student group AU Community Garden Club and AU’s Facilities Management, the garden has not become a community builder. Noa Banayan, the garden’s student manager, said there is very little participation. “Being on a college campus is so much more different than being in an urban setting outside of a school,” said Banayan.

While community gardens often serve as anchors for urban communities and offer members the chance to interact and spend time together, Banayan said this doesn’t happen at AU. “Students are anchored here regardless of there being a garden or not.”

Not all green spaces fail to build community or divide neighborhoods though. When all community members are involved and have the opportunity to participate, then the neighborhood is able to grow and flourish around the garden.

“[A community garden] can solve nutrition issues… it can bring empowerment like having power over what you can choose to eat,” said Singer. “It can bring communities together, and you can actually meet your neighbors if it’s done right.”