NEW FOOD MOVEMENT

Navigating the New Food Movement: Do people really garden for better food? You may be surprised

Why consumers really want to grow their own vegetables

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr's LB544, introduced into the legislature in late January, would allow community organizations to establish community public vegetable gardens on vacant public land. Harr said the measure "would help address food insecurity in communities across the state."

Tim Rinne, state coordinator for Nebraskans for Peace, told the legislature's Agriculture Committee it was the state's role to encourage citizens to grow more food locally in order to prevent hunger. “The farther we get away from our food supply, the more food insecure we are,” he said.

But Harr and Rinne's conclusions assume a reality that may not necessarily hold true, according to study scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values. In it, French and Canadian social scientists conducted in-depth interviews of 25 gardeners in Paris and 14 in Montreal working in collective gardens across those cities. The aim of the  questionnaire was to assess how important actually producing food was to the gardeners.

The found that of the 39 gardeners interviewed, 33 did mention the possibility of producing food as one of their motivations. However, only about one-third--14 of the 39--said growing enough food to eat at an affordable price was a motivating factor in working the public gardens. That handful of gardeners who said they considered the public garden economically beneficial said so for one of two reasons:

  • They ate only the produce they grew themselves and learned to live without fruit and vegetables they couldn't raise themselves.
  • They chose to produce the most expensive produce themselves and then to buy the cheaper products in supermarkets.

 More than half of the gardeners interviewed considered that the garden was not economically advantageous, the researchers reported. In fact, some gardeners considered that the vegetables produced at the garden ended up costing more than those bought in shops. It's also noteworthy that although "sharing" the bounty of the public garden with other people was one of the food-related reasons for participating, the check-box on the questionnaire for "food bank"--an option city officials advised the research team should be included because it was a common destination for public-garden produce--went unticked on every respondent's questionnaire.

So why do they garden? In contrast to the production of food, users of the public space to garden cited these "multifunctions," according to the research:

  • It gives them a "social place," where they can meet and interact with people and foster a sense of community.
  • It improves their physical health through physical activity and their mental health by improving self-esteem.
  • It permits them a natural space that makes them feel free of the city's confines. "It’s a consolation for not having a house with a garden," in the words of one respondent.
  • It puts them in more direct contact with nature.
  • It allows them a formalized place to learn and teach.
  • It provides a leisure activity.
  • It improves the city and its landscape--a benefit mentioned only by the public garden's authorities but not by a single citizen who used the garden space.

Although production of food is often rooted within those other functions, the research team noted, in the relatively affluent northern hemisphere, self-production of food doesn't typically have a subsistence function, as it does in the relatively less affluent southern hemisphere, "where food-producing urban agriculture has a very important role in the food supply.’’

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