Community Gardening Changes the World – One Neighborhood at a Time!
Picture this scene: You come home from work, start putting together some dinner, and find yourself using a prepackaged meal or ordering takeout. Maybe you have to brave the crowds at the grocery store. You pass by the produce section, but the tomatoes look a little road weary. You’ve heard organic vegetables are tastier and healthier, but who can afford them? You stand in line at checkout feeling disconnected. Oh well, such is life…
Now imagine this: You come home from work, put on some play clothes and walk to your local community garden. You smile and chat with your acquaintances and get down to work. You revel in the sun on your back, and feel renewed in connecting with the earth and your neighbors. Your children work along side you, discovering bugs, planting seeds, watering seedlings, finding weeds, sampling new and varied fruits and vegetables (!) You load up a small feast in a basket – fresh berries, spicy lettuce, cucumbers still a little warm from the sun, and ah, the tomatoes. They taste like summer, they cost next to nothing, besides the time you spent throughout the season, enjoying the company of friends, bending and stretching in the outdoors. Now, this is the life! …and it’s in Belmar!
Welcome to the world of Community Gardening. There are many variations on the theme, and many different reasons people get involved, but the rewards are great, and can be life changing. American Community Garden Association cites these benefits:
improves the quality of life for people by providing a catalyst for neighborhood and community development, stimulating social interaction, encouraging self-reliance, beautifying neighborhoods, producing nutritious food, reducing family food budgets, conserving resources and creating opportunities for recreation, exercise, therapy and education.
It almost seems crazy that every town doesn’t have one. Belmar is home to The Magical Garden, sponsored by the Belmar Environmental Commission. Started in 2000, it is used by dozens of school children and community residents and hosts the Community Garden Group, which meets during the spring, summer and fall to prepare, plant and harvest a large variety of organic vegetables. It includes several Master Gardeners who have learned through years of experience and classes. Even rookie gardeners like me, who probably inherited my mother’s and Grammie’s “Black Thumb” are welcome. Although I can honestly say I enjoyed the planting, and all the other work, I loved the harvest best. My son even developed a deep love of green beans – especially those that we’d planted then picked ourselves.
Not every town has a community garden, though there are many resources available to those interested in starting one. But, suppose you really don’t have the time to participate that fully in physically bringing food to your table. An alternative is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A local farm will sell shares of their output to a group of people who usually pay and sometimes contribute labor to support the farm. They share in the risks of pests and bad weather, but also enjoy the bounty of the harvest. Usually farms produce from the summer through harvest season, and members pick up their crated produce once or twice a week. One unexpected delight was the pleasure of fresh cut flowers in my home all last summer (from my community garden), and Merrick Farm, our local CSA also grows flowers. Like community garden members, CSA members feel reconnection to the land and their fellow members, and enjoy knowing their grower and being involved in food production. They also pay less for locally grown and often organic produce. Farmers benefit from the advance money from shareholders, better prices, and reduced marketing efforts.
If a CSA sounds too involved, you can always visit a local farmer’s market or simple stand to support local growers, which in turn supports the local economy. Also, many local natural foods stores sell locally grown and organic produce. Remember, New Jersey is The Garden State! Every dollar that is spent supporting local businesses and especially local producers improves the quality of life for the people of the community. Shopping close enough to home to walk or bike adds an extra benefit to the community.
A British journal called Food Study reported about the hidden cost of food: “damage to the environment, damage to climate, damage to infrastructure and the cost of transporting food on roads”, concluding that buying locally was even more important to protecting the environment than buying organic food. Another hidden cost of some foods is the human cost. Some of the large agribusiness food producers who supply grocery chains routinely exploit the disenfranchised people who work for them, especially the pickers. Choosing to purchase (or grow) your food locally is an empowering choice for both you and a local farmer, and is a good way to vote with your dollars for the kinds of businesses you want to support.
Yet another resource for more locally produced and natural food is a food co-op. There are several kinds of food co-ops, and I will describe two types that are locally available. One is a produce co-op, where members buy one of a limited number of shares in a buying club. One member receives the delivery and often receives a discount on a share in exchange for the labor involved in processing the delivery. The Purple Dragon Co-Op, based in Glen Ridge, NJ, makes deliveries to communities throughout NJ, bringing a pre-selected assortment of organic produce. Members pay about $40 for each 15-30 pound delivery, take turns sharing in the work of processing, and often receive preparation tips for the always varied, but sometimes unfamiliar selections. Neshaminy Valley Organic Foods is a food co-op wholesale buying club based in Ivyland, PA and makes deliveries to Monmouth County every two weeks. They require a minimum purchase of $350 to offset the costs in sending the delivery truck, but in addition to produce they sell a wide variety of natural and organic food and products, from which members can choose from single items up to bulk products by the 25lb bag. Any group of five households can plan an order, pick an acceptable delivery site, and place orders through a printed catalog. While the produce is not quite as local, it is often organic and for many people an affordable alternative.
A common theme linking these alternatives is a connection to the food, the land where it is grown, and the people who grow it. Some people are committed to buying organic for better health. Some people are committed to buying locally because they care about supporting their communities and want to empower themselves in their food choices. Some people join in after learning about the hidden costs of conventionally grown produce, which can include exploiting the people who pick it, damaging the soil that grows it, and the fuel and environmental costs that go into the 1,500 miles that average food items in the US have traveled to reach our plates.
Think of the lifelong lessons learned when your children participate in or observe the growing season alongside the diverse people in their own community, learn about where their food comes from, and understand how the choices they make in purchasing impact the world and their own neighborhoods. Use the resources below to bring some healthy changes into your life!
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) listings:
Merrick Farm (CSA) 98 Merrick Rd. Farmingdale, NJ 07727
Community Farmers Markets in Monmouth County
Belmar Farmers' Market
Pick Your Own Farms in Monmouth County
Food Co-Op Listings
Neshaminy Valley Natural Foods Distributor
Date Last Modified: 07/10/2005