Get Your Neighbors' Hands Dirty

Population growth has impacted food demand globally, moving food production away from homes. For decades factory farms and mono-cropped agriculture have sustained increased demands leading to environmental and health consequences, including food waste. Larger scale food production has altered the natural landscape and ecosystem, impacted climate and microclimate, and generated surplus of foods that are not consumed, while low and under-served communities face food insecurity and related health risks. The system has failed and communities have responded! Many creative solutions are in place to intercept the waste stream, deliver excess food products to underserved communities, and inspire locally sourced foods with farm-to-table restaurants, farm-to-school initiatives, and connecting with your food source directly at farmers markets and in home gardens where more folks are growing their own food.

Home Gardens: An urban home gardening program combined with nutrition education in 32 low income families in Santa Clara, CA showed incredibly positive results in stress reduction, mental health, physical activity and improved weight.1 This program demonstrated that home gardens increased consumption of fruits and vegetables with greater food access.1 The sense of pride in growing your own food inspired more home food preparation and cooking, shifting away from processed and fast foods in a marginalized population at high risk for cardiometabolic disease.1 Families found that growing food is more accessible both in proximity and affordability, freshness, flavor, and convenience.1 It’s hard not to eat well, when the produce aisle is in your back yard!

Community Gardens: A similar conclusion was drawn for a community garden project in two Navajo communities with monthly gardening workshops designed to improve access and healthy eating in two NM locations.2 The intervention was designed to address growing concerns for food scarcity where the average daily recommendations of fresh fruit and vegetables are substandard in communities where there is an increased prevalence of diabetes and obesity.2 This project was a strong foot in the door for building community and developing a new lifestyle practice. The results created a blueprint for developing future interventions and identified strategies for overcoming community self reliance through education and inclusion of Navajo gardening traditions.2 The need was demonstrated and well received.

School Gardens: Waldorf and Montessori schools were among the first to embrace slow food in curriculums well before the term slow food existed. A systematic review was conducted on the impact of school gardens and farm to school activities added to curriculums around the country in both private and public school initiatives.3 The context is broad, including integrated curriculums and nutrition education studies, experiential learning, and smarter lunchroom interventions.3 The results are slight, however, the long-term impacts are unmeasured for what I call the teach-a-man-to-fish approach.3 The goal in school programs remains focused on increasing preference and dietary intake of fruits and veg. There is incredible potential, and it has been part of my life’s work to participate to move these concepts along in each city I have lived over the last decade. I am encouraged to see the grant funding and the wide reach with growing (literally, ha!) interest.

Farmers Markets: Farmers markets are an incredible way to reduce your carbon footprint and improve your health by sourcing your foods locally. Income can be the biggest obstacle to accessing nutrient dense foods.4 Food insecurity leads to poor health and demonstrated malnourishment.4 A Canadian Farmers’ Market Nutrition Coupon Program offered government subsidized support to bring higher costs of locally sourced foods into economic reach for lower income families.4 Data collection faced limitations in computer literacy which impacted results of the study.4 Overall, the need was demonstrated in the randomized trial, and demonstrated a rise in food security within these populations, improving diet, and psycho-social well being.4

Schools have a great opportunity to reach our youth, communities are embracing community gardens more and more, infrastructure and funding are increasing for these activities as they resolve a number of concerns at once for community health, resource, self reliance and resilience. Locally sourced foods, connection with community, health and wellness from connecting with the soil, mental health in participating in the cultivation, tending and harvesting of nourishing foods, and sharing surplus within the community. Plants and vegetables also retain the majority of their nutrients when they are consumed closer to the time they are picked! It is a true health, environmental and social win, all the way around. Here’s to more evidence-based research and grant funding for farm to community efforts for all ages.

  1. Palar K, Lemus Hufstedler E, Hernandez K, Chang A, Ferguson L, Lozano R, Weiser SD. Nutrition and Health Improvements After Participation in an Urban Home Garden Program. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2019 Oct;51(9):1037-1046. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2019.06.028. Erratum in: J Nutr Educ Behav. 2020 Jan;52(1):102. PMID: 31601420; PMCID: PMC6949143.
  2. Ornelas IJ, Deschenie D, Jim J, Bishop S, Lombard K, Beresford SA. Yéego Gardening! A Community Garden Intervention to Promote Health on the Navajo Nation. Prog Community Health Partnersh. 2017;11(4):417-425. doi: 10.1353/cpr.2017.0049. PMID: 29332855; PMCID: PMC6582943.
  3. Prescott MP, Cleary R, Bonanno A, Costanigro M, Jablonski BBR, Long AB. Farm to School Activities and Student Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Adv Nutr. 2020;11(2):357-374. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz094
  4. Aktary ML, Caron-Roy S, Sajobi T, O’Hara H, Leblanc P, Dunn S, McCormack GR, Timmins D, Ball K, Downs S, Minaker LM, Nykiforuk CI, Godley J, Milaney K, Lashewicz B, Fournier B, Elliott C, Raine KD, Prowse RJ, Olstad DL. Impact of a farmers’ market nutrition coupon programme on diet quality and psychosocial well-being among low-income adults: protocol for a randomised controlled trial and a longitudinal qualitative investigation. BMJ Open. 2020 May 5;10(5):e035143. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-035143. PMID: 32371514; PMCID: PMC7228519.