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Soo Line Community Garden.

Soo Line community garden in Minneapolis.

Waging gardens

Community gardeners promote healthy neighborhoods

By Gayla Marty

Published on August 17, 2005

In an inner city neighborhood or a small town near you, a major grocery store closes. Residents may be left with a fast-food chain, a corner store that carries limited produce at premium prices, or nothing at all--meaning a drive to the next town. With obesity and diabetes rates as well as gas prices skyrocketing, where can the community turn for fresh fruits and vegetables?

Community gardens--available to all to plant, harvest, and enjoy--are one answer. One of the oldest such gardens in the United States, Dowling Community Garden in south Minneapolis, has been providing fresh food for neighborhood residents since the Great Depression.

"We hear about threats to the food supply from disease or terrorism, but food security is also about access to food that is good for you and affordable," says horticulturist and extension educator Anne Gachuhi. "Gardens--including community gardens--are very important to keep or provide that access."

More than 200 community gardeners from the United States, Canada, and Europe, descended on the U's Twin Cities campus August 11-14 to share ideas and expertise. The University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum, part of the University's Extension Service, was one of the local hosts for the 26th annual conference of the American Community Gardening Association. The University is becoming increasingly involved in the community gardening movement at the same time as it establishes its leadership in other green areas, like renewable energy research and transportation alternatives and advances.

Community gardens are strong in major cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, and 95 percent of Minnesota's estimated 200 gardens are in the metro area. But community gardens also thrive in smaller cities like Duluth, Mankato, Owatonna, and Rochester, started for many reasons, from growing food to youth development.

The Dowling gardens were created to fight hunger, but they also met psychological needs, said Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak in the opening session of the conference. A garden planted in the Jordan neighborhood in north Minneapolis in the wake of several shootings, he said, is beautiful in itself but means much more in that community.

"You've heard about waging peace, but we need to wage gardening, too," Rybak said. "It's an aggressive endeavor."

Conference participants ranged from energetic senior citizens in gardening hats to teens in dreadlocks. They included young Somali women in traditional dress, community organizers from Toronto to Tulsa, extension educators, and professors.

Since 1977, the U's Extension Service and Minnesota Landscape Arboretum have trained and certified more than 5,000 master gardeners to teach horticulture throughout Minnesota. Master gardener Mimi Hottinger volunteers in a community garden created by the Center for Earth Spirituality and Rural Ministry in Mankato.

"Hmong, Somali, Sudanese--one year we had 14 languages spoken in the garden," she says. "The garden also grows vegetables from those cultures. Extension is about inclusion, and there is no better way to reach out than through something familiar."

Stephanie Hankerson, a University food science graduate, coordinates volunteers for a dozen gardens in Southeast-Como neighborhood in Minneapolis--the most visible being a triangle plot full of flowers bordered by Como Ave., 22nd Ave., and a railroad track. In this neighborhood, located on the north end of the U's Twin Cities campus, 60 percent of properties are renter-occupied, mostly by students. When this community joined the city's restorative justice program, Hankerson began to get calls from three to five students a week, each seeking a community gardening activity to make amends for a violation like underage drinking and disorderly conduct. In a community garden, they work side by side with other residents who are committed to beautifying the place where they live.

"Many of [the students] walk away with a better idea of what it means to be in a neighborhood," says Hankerson. "I'm happy to contribute to that."

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