For those with a Whole Foods Market or Trader Joe’s down the street — as well as a car to drive and plenty of cash and credit cards in their pockets — it may be difficult to understand the challenges that people living in food deserts face. A food desert is an urban area in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.
Food deserts have grown as quickly as the geographic divide between affluent and poor localities, and the disproportionate availability of nutritious foods has led to food insecurity (or, more accurately, nutrition insecurity) for those in economically disadvantaged areas.
John Pipoly, who trains master gardeners and master naturalists for the Broward County Extension Consumer Horticulture & Natural Resources Program, says that access to fresh fruits and vegetables is partially a matter of the ability of local markets to stock them.
“Spoilage is high, and their life span is short,” Pipoly says, referring to fresh fruits and vegetables. “If small mom-and-pop stores don’t have the proper refrigeration, mist sprays, and other things to make sure that produce doesn’t become contaminated and that it lasts long enough, there’s going to be a shortage. With high spoilage, the prices go up. That’s a problem.”
Limited availability of fresh produce, coupled with increased prices, results in poorer areas lacking access to adequate nutrition, thus creating a food desert and the resulting food insecurity.
“Think about it,” says Pipoly, referring to the cost of fresh produce at local urban markets. “If you’re on limited income, $1.18 for a green pepper is a lot of money.”
This is where community gardens come into play.
Broward County Extension Education’s master gardener Beverly Williams runs the community garden program in Lauderdale Lakes. She teaches local residents, including children and the elderly, the art of gardening. Beginning with nothing more than two wheelbarrows, a few buckets, one water spigot, and a passionate vision, she has grown the garden to 45 beds, including four raised beds for handicapped access.
“The 33311 is basically a food desert because a lot of the stores in our area only carry junk food,” Williams says. “So we started this program in 2011 with 17 residents. We’re getting people to learn how to eat different vegetables that they have never tasted before. Our goal here in Lauderdale Lakes is to teach as many people as we possibly can.”
Today, the program is thriving — so much so that it has drawn the attention of the USDA, which arranged for U.S. Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Ann Bartuska to personally tour the gardens on April 10.
“What we’re trying to do is increase food availability at the community level,” Bartuska says, praising the efforts of Williams and Pipoly. “It enables us to bring fresh foods into urban areas that could [otherwise] be food deserts.”
But in a neighborhood that often receives more press on crime than community, the gardens offer much more than access to nutritious foods. They foster a sense of unity through collaboration between those who might not otherwise have reason to interact.
“It brings communities together so you have a very strong social connection,” says Bartuska. “You’ve got kids, older people, and the community, all participating in a voluntary way. It’s sort of like a community gathering place.”
A bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables grows in the gardens, including callaloo, collards, mustard greens, bell peppers, onions, turnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lettuce, chick peas, okra, eggplant, pineapple, papaya, strawberries, mangos, and lemons.
Bartuska says that South Florida is in a unique position to make this program particularly successful.
“You have an abundance of seeds and water, so you have a good opportunity to grow a diversity of crops,” she says.
In addition to keeping the produce that that they grow, each family may tailor their bed to whichever fruits and vegetables they prefer.
Brenda Marty Jimenez, the IFAS County Extension Director for the University of Florida, says that even those with no gardening experience can participate in or start a community garden.
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“We have a whole list of master gardeners who have been trained through the program, and that’s what they do — they go out into the community and educate.”
Residents of Lauderdale Lakes may participate in the program for $20 by contacting city hall at 954-535-2700 to rent a gardening bed for the season, which runs from fall to spring.
Residents of Broward County who are interested in a community or school garden may email email@example.com or call 954-357-5270. An Urban Agriculture Tool Kit, including information on starting and funding a community garden, is available through the USDA website.