Community Gardens and Food System Plans: Creating A Win

A Sustainable City Network article (2017-10-25) discussed how two very different local governments (the City of Madison, Wisconsin, and Douglas County, Kansas) went about implementing community gardens and food system plans.

City of Madison, Wisconsin

The article noted that the City of Madison has supported community gardens since the 1990s. In 2014, the City partnered with the nonprofit Community Groundworks and the Dane County/University of Wisconsin Extension to form the Gardens Network. The Network took on the task of creating a community garden in the Brittingham Park area of the City. Overcoming intial community resistance and implementation challenges, the community garden helped revitalize Brittingham Park and serves as an anchor for other types of events. From the article:

[Brittingham Park] is situated downtown between a traditional single-family neighborhood and a multi-family area with a high density of immigrant and lower income families.

When in 2010 there began to be pressure for more garden space downtown, Brittingham Park was identified as a possible location. The high-density sections of the neighborhood had some safety issues in part because of low foot traffic through the area. Local police saw a community garden as a good way to bring more people into the area, [Madison City Food Policy Council Chair Nan] Fey said. From the social equity lens, it was seen as a way to improve lives for a Hmong community living in the neighborhood, for whom gardening is a traditional activity.

However, there was some resistance from other residents in the single-family area of the neighborhood. Fey said some were worried a garden would be messy and attract the “wrong kind of people” to the park. In 2012, community meetings began and the city council representative from the neighborhood was not supportive. …

In the fall of that year, the mayor proposed a policy of citing gardens in parks and the city moved forward. In 2013 the Brittingham Park site was chosen for a garden, and planting started that June. Deep waterlines were installed, but no fence surrounded the vegetables. “The bunnies feasted,” Fey said.

In 2014, she said, a low cost, “aesthetically pleasing rabbit fencing” was installed. Safety in the park is much improved and there is good publicity in the local paper, according to Fey. “Neighbors formerly opposed have come to appreciate the garden,” she added. Now the garden includes 38 spots and four raised beds, and it has a waiting list. The Hmong and elderly have priority for obtaining a spot.

There are also public art displays and seating areas. “Brittingham Park is a tremendous success story in town,” Fey said. “Community gardens are about growing more than vegetables.”

Douglas County, Kansas

According to the article, Douglas County has a population of 118,000, with 94,000 of that total living in the City of Lawrence. Lawrence houses the University of Kansas and Haskell Indian Nations University. The article explained how the  Douglas County Food Policy Council (FPC) worked to create a food systems plan to serve the entire county. The FPC was created by the County Commission in 2010 and was turned into a joint County/City partnership in 2013.

When faced with this experiment in equitable food systems planning, [Douglas County Food Policy Coordinator Helen] Schoes said, “the commissioners didn’t want just another ‘foodie liberal’ pat yourself on the back plan from Lawrence.” Instead, they wanted to be sure all voices were at the table. The 23-members group includes a no-till farmer and cattle producer, a state policy advocate, a retail food outlet, a youth representative, and people representing senior food nutrition programs, the health department, a farmers market, and sustainability advocates.

In spite of a potentially unwieldy structure, Schnoes said, the group notched several major accomplishments, including leveraging an initial $6,800 investment into more than a $1 million, and the development of a food systems plan, which was incorporated into the county’s updated comprehensive plan. It sets a framework for the next 10 years to guide policy changes by local governments, shape the work of the FPC, and inspire community actions and partnerships.

Schnoes said the food systems plan defines “how we produce, buy, eat, and dispose of food.” It recognizes that the “journey our food takes from field to plate is influenced by eco-systems, education, culture, funding, research and public policies.” …

From this work the FPC has developed goals to strive for in the future:

Goal 1: Agricultural producers, food entrepreneurs, and food sector workers thrive in our regional economy.

Goal 2: As our cities grow, we prioritize natural resource conservation and maintain working lands to promote soil health.

Goal 3: We build and design our communities to ensure food access, foster health, and eliminate food deserts.

Goal 4: Our community fosters an equitable food system.

Goal 5: Our community eliminates waste in our local food system.

Schnoes advises other communities to “keep the goal to build an equitable food system front and center. Don’t assume you know what communities need — go work with them first and find out.”