Most people probably don't think of Florida as a place with deserts, but if you look closely, they're there.
They run up and down what city planner types call "the transportation corridor." They are the areas immediately surrounding I-95. They are food deserts.
Researchers call them "red zones." They are areas where poverty, lack of food stores, and high rates of diet-related diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity all overlap. They have long been the poorest communities. When I-95 was being built back in the 1970s, these were the communities that lost the NIMBY wars.
Not only did those communities get all the things no one else wanted in their backyards -- from freeways to landfills -- they also never got many of the things one would want.
All images are from the Northwest Garden in Fort Lauderdale, formerly the Dr. Lindsay Garden, part of the Housing Authority's community garden project.
Retail development was largely ignored in these areas, according to food policy activist Michael Madfis of Fort Lauderdale Vegetables. A master gardener and vehement advocate of the concept of decentralized agriculture, Madfis has teamed up with Dania Beach CRA's PATCH (People's Access to Horticulture) Program to build a community garden in the center of a low-income neighborhood. The Sunny Garden Isles Community Garden will has found a home in a vacant city lot. Volunteers, under the tutelage of two staff farmers, will start planting all organic foods this weekend.
The garden is possible thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Touch Initiative, a federal grant program being administered by the Broward Regional Health Planning Council. But it is far more than your average community garden, which generally consists of locals puttering around with tomato plants in an unused lot.
This is urban farming, and it is a way of imagining life. Bringing the farm and -- just as crucially -- the farmer to the urban community can revitalize an area that has been crushed by poverty and unemployment. Part business, part charity, part community project, part educational program, the Sunny Garden Isles farm will provide just the spark need to bring a community to life, Madfis hopes.
"The farm will be large enough to service 100 families in about an eight-block radius, or maybe one restaurant and 50 families. It's walkable. No extra trips, no extra carbon," says Madfis. By making fresh, organic produce as convenient and cheap as fast food, locals will be able to make healthier choices.
Because the farm is organic and hand-farmed, there is no overhead for fertilizer or pesticides and no diesel fuel for large equipment.
"All of that makes a big difference," according to Madfis, who says that as much as 90 percent of the cost of produce in the grocery store goes to transportation. A farmer selling foods that she grows to people in her community "could sell that food for half of what the grocery store charges, still make a good living, and pay her assistants very well. So now we've created jobs -- very good jobs that are not exploitative and help and improve the community."
The city "leased" the land to the program. The farm will "pay" for the lease by donating 20 to 25 percent of the farm's yield to local food banks, that might otherwise mostly have access only to nonperishable food items. The other 75 percent of the yield goes to community members. They can either come to volunteer and help grow the food, in which case they "get to take home as much produce as they can carry," or they can buy into a CSA (community-supported agriculture program) and get fresh produce weekly.
Also, part of the farm is designated as a community garden; locals are invited to claim a plot and plant whatever they like. The magic ingredient is the farmer who will be there to give them advice, answer questions, and help solve problems. The yield from the plot is the gardener's to take. This is about more than growing a few tomatoes -- or even a lot of tomatoes.
"There's no way the people in this red zone can get out of it with the resources they have," says Madfis. "This program will give them the resources to make it possible. We're going to create a whole industry around it that will allow it to support itself."
Having a farm in the middle of town means that new businesses and services will be needed to help support that farm, from organic compost to grow bags for new plants to irrigation systems.
The farmer is also there to educate and assist the community, in addition to running the farm as a profitable business. She will go out into the community, helping other community gardens in the area, doing educational programs at schools, and even visiting people in their homes. And those schools and homes will also need the supplies necessary to care for a garden.
To anyone familiar with the I-95 corridor, it might be hard to imagine the area as green, to picture community gardens in the empty lots, to see locals walking home with bags of produce instead of fast food. But that is the dream.
In areas that traditionally have such high rates of unemployment, Madfis hopes the farm will help to grow something even more important than food.
"When the farmer is out there farming, it's the most exposed work you can have. When that farmer walks into the garden and the neighborhood sees them there day in and day out and sees them coming back and time passes and they see all the green growing, the result of all that work. Work ethic, success [becomes more than] a game where you beat the other guy.
"When you're out there growing something from seed, all you're doing is creating. There is very little destruction going on. Even if you have failure, you're creating. A seed doesn't know any other way to go except grow. Just keep watering it."
The Sunny Garden Isles Community Garden will be located at 1200 NW First St. in Dania Beach. The community is invited to learn more about the garden this Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The nonprofit food truck Need to Feed will be on hand providing free lunch. Call 954-854-8788, email email@example.com, or visit fortlauderdalevegetables.com.