How (and where) does your public housing garden grow?

In 1996 American Community Gardening Association conducted a survey of members to try and determine the number of community gardens (CGs) in the U.S.  The survey accounted for public housing as well.  According to the returned surveys, out of 6020 gardens 983 were located on public housing sites.  As home&community inc began working with low-income residents to bring community gardens and other local food resources to their neighborhoods, we learned a lot about CG’s and how to set them up via land trusts, or through leases, purchases and new zoning ordinances.  But, we wondered what has happened on public housing land in the 14 years since the ACGA survey.

We began by reviewing the areas where we have network contacts, talking to residents and researching housing authorities.  In the process, we also talked to people about steps to get a community garden set up on public housing property.

Most housing authority directors and staff are open to the idea of community gardens.  We are finding — from scholarly and news articles and directors themselves — that they believe CGs encourage community interaction and reduce blight and crime.  Residents are interested in starting their own gardens. The key has been to get a large cross-section of residents involved in or at least benefitting from what is produced – so that the garden is sustaining and continues beyond the first season.  It was a natural progression to bring our policy organizing methods to CG development.  A community garden addresses social equity issues of community food security, healthy food choices and food deserts. The challenges at public housing sites seem to have been resources, expertise and space.  Quite simply:

  • Resources have been addressed by third-party non-profits and other local, community/volunteer groups.  These include design and materials.
  • Expertise has been addressed by those same non-profits, in addition to university Extension programs that offer Master Gardeners and other gardening organizations/associations.
  • Space is usually identified by residents and they seek permission from the housing authority (and often approval from the resident council) to use it.  Then, residents tend the gardens and housing authority staff monitors the activity.

In New York City, there are 572 community gardens on public housing sites according to NYCHA. This is down from the stated number of 834 by ACGA in 1996. We wondered what accounts for the large discrepancy. Is it due to different definitions of community garden?  NYCHA has three categories: flowers, vegetable, children’s. But even that doesn’t explain how or why the numbers went down. Is it that respondents in 1996 mistook parcels as existing on housing authority land, when it was really on city or private land? Did NYCHA reduce the number of CGs? So, it is statistics like these that we are reviewing in order to come up with a clear number for all sites.

As part of our overall mapping of food sources in particular cities, we want to conduct a census of CGs on public housing sites, similar to what the folks at Neighborhood Farm Initiative did to determine all community gardens in Washington, D.C.  To begin, we are looking at housing authorities in the following 18 states and D.C.: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C., West Virginia and Wisconsin.  So far, our sources reveal over 700 community gardens in public housing, in just these states!

As you can see, we’re expecting to well-exceed the 983 CGs in the 1996 ACGA survey.  We’ll keep you updated!


Following leaders

We love the variety and depth of information we get from our friends on Twitter. With passion and commitment, groups send out tweets that educate, astound, sadden, and inspire us – sometimes all at the same time! What a community.

We hate not being able to fully explain why we “follow” who we follow on Fridays. So, here’s our effort to remedy that. These are friends we’re following today, and why. Hope you will, too.

We’ll certainly do this again.

@new_urbanism – for an upcoming, free online participatory community to discuss sustainable cities of the future.  We can’t wait!

@BVHHgarden – did you know they’re building their community garden this weekend? They are!  Go help, if you’re in Milwaukee.

@farmingconcrete – for providing some amazing prototypes on urban food systems mapping, which we’re using in our work.

@thefoodtrust – for the time-saving report: The Grocery Gap: Who Has Access to Healthy Food and Why it Matters, we’ve been using this week.

@NLCHPhomeless —  for working to increase funding for McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Programs and Housing Choice Voucher programs

@PAHousing – did you know about a free voice mail program that helps those without phones, in crisis and in transition? They told us about it.

@NFI_Info – for conducting a citywide census of community gardens, and creating a replicable strategy for obtaining unused land for urban gardening.

Spring Gleaning

We’re always offering ways for people to get involved in improving food choices for low-income people. Remember one person can make a difference.  So…have you gleaned lately?

Historically, gleaning is the process of harvesting leftover crops from farms. In an urban context, it’s generally the gathering of excess produce on plants in the city. The goal is to harvest before it falls to the ground and rots. This unused produce from private and public trees is taken to food banks and other organizations that feed the hungry — providing low-income people with access to fresh fruit and vegetables. There are a number of websites, individuals and other groups organizing people to gather produce. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of some of those groups, in some of our network areas. Let us know about any others we should add. And, if you’ve got extra fruit or vegetables, donate it!  Waste not…



CA (Updated 8/12) (NEW! 8/12)





















Local is not a four-letter word.

In our work with low-income clients, Local is often considered a dirty word (as are “sustainability” for its hoity-toityness and “organic” for its perceived expense). All in all, doing the Local thing seems like some privileged thing.  The lament is that this talk about acting Local seems to be coming from the top down.  And how is it relevant to their lives?

We understand the position, but are often struck by its irony: acting Local was once the province of the poor and less fortunate, out of necessity. Low-income people depended on one another – growing food, raising animals, sharing skills, watching over kids — and communities were sustained on that fact.

As for eating locally, low-income people get it. They want good choices for their kids. They want the same food options that more affluent people have. But the idea of Local sounds like a bias towards complexity over simplicity, expensive over cheap, chartreuse over Green.

This Earth Day, we remember Gaylord Nelson’s view of the “environment” he sought to define.  He said it was everywhere and was about everyone’s problems. This is basically what we think about Local. And although we focus on it — in practice — in terms of food access, it covers so much more than that.

Building on Ryan Mickle’s super article about Local, we add the following:

  • It’s about sitting on the stoop or porch or stairs, prepping snap beans that were grown in the side yard or container.
  • It’s about sense of pride in shopping direct from other local working people.
  • It’s about constructing identity through food related experience.
  • It’s about keeping cultural traditions that call for a handful of jalepeño (but from the community garden), a pound of yams (from the farmers market) and a few avocados (from the yardshare).
  • It’s new stories about recipe sharing and old stories about the ways food shapes family and community.
  • It’s an old school system of community going new school and getting back to its roots – realizing that doing for self is doing for neighbors.
  • It’s keeping it simple, with less artisanal cheese and heirloom, more grandmama’s bell pepper seeds and publicly foraged fruit.

Local is a two-letter word: us.

Oasis or mirage?

First Lady Michelle Obama traveled to California yesterday, and she talked about food deserts.  We mentioned them in a prior post on food security, so, it seemed time to talk a bit more about those deserts and what we are trying to do about them.

A food desert is a neighborhood with little or no access to healthy food options. At home&community inc, we view the problem of food deserts as a social justice and equity issue, since they are marked by unfairness and inequitable access to fresh and healthy food. These deserts occur primarily in low-income urban communities of color and also in rural areas. Residents who lack access – who live in food deserts – suffer from health issues like obesity and diabetes at far higher rates than those who don’t.

Where does one shop for food in a food desert? Well, usually in a fast food restaurant, gas station or corner convenience/liquor store. That food is often more expensive than fresher options in grocery stores and (unfortunately) usually within walking distance of residents’ homes.

When you add some statistics and a dose of reality to the situation, it becomes even clearer that we’ve got extreme inequality at hand. Policylink reports that in Mississippi, more than 70% of families that could receive SNAP/EBT benefits (formerly food stamps) live more than 30 miles from the nearest major grocery store.  It also has the highest obesity rate in the U.S.  There are at least eight other states in the study with similarly shocking numbers, and overall in the U.S. more than 23 million people live farther than a mile from a supermarket. As a result, availability of public transportation is a key factor in getting people to fresh produce.

But, if you build it will they come? Apparently, yes. Studies by The Food Trust have proven that when there is better access to better food, people eat healthier.  In some places simply putting more fresh produce on shelves has shown greater consumption of that produce.  Plus, the benefits of more fresh options expand beyond the residents — the whole area gets “healthy” too.  In many cases, a grocery store brings economic growth through other retail outlets, services and jobs to the neighborhood.  Farmers markets help local produce growers and folks along the supply chain, while keeping money in the local economy.

As with all the topics we post, we want to let you know what we’re doing to help. And, as you might guess from reading our earlier posts (you have read them right?) we are advocating for increased access to fresh options via local growing. That means connecting folks to farmers markets that accept SNAP/EBT benefits; advocating for more farmers markets to accept SNAP/EBT; helping people become members of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms; helping people grow their own food at their homes or in a community garden. We are also interested in bringing options to people through innovative programs like New York’s Green Carts and local food truck deliveries of produce.

We’re working on more oasis, less mirage.

So you want to be a permaculturist locavore? Or, how to be a tickbird…

Well, maybe you’re not so sure about being one yet. But, once you read about how we’re getting folks to be one, you may decide you’d like to, too! And, oh my goodness, what if you’re already one of those and don’t even know it? Let’s see…

What is permaculture? The philosophy was developed in the 1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. And, since then, so many folks have talked about it and defined it — a lot of them very well. Some people say permanent agriculture and others say permanent culture. Our take is decidedly grounded in how we can bring the philosophy to low-income residents and make it real and doable.

Our single sentence description: It’s about observing lessons in nature and copying them. And it does not have to be a drag.

This observation and learning means cooperating with nature and developing a relationship between humans, animals, plants and the built environment. Each provides for its own needs while serving the other. If one part changes, the rest are resilient enough to go on. It’s like the tickbird on the zebra, or the orchid on the kapok tree, or…well, you get the idea. Really, if you think about it, why NOT copy nature? Nature takes care of itself. It doesn’t weed, it doesn’t buy pesticides, it doesn’t haul stuff off to the dump. And, if left to its own devices, it does it over and over again very well.  It self-maintains and is sustainable.

How are we advancing permaculture? There are plenty of advanced systems that have been put in place to practice permaculture. Sometimes they involve harnessing solar power, integrating run-off systems, capturing major waste.  There are smaller systems where certain food plants are grown on a particular side of the house and then sop up water to prevent run off.  A lot of our work focuses on enhancing and encouraging the things residents already do.  Bartering for and sharing skills, services, food and tools. But it’s also new activities that create the permanent culture/agriculture that sustains their communities. It’s advocating for more green affordable housing. It’s waste recycling, reusing their stuff, and reducing use of toxic chemicals. It’s taking vacant land, making a community garden and growing their own food. It’s shopping for local food and eating at places that buy local food – becoming a locavore.

Ahh, so what is a locavore?

It may sound like something in a sci-fi film, but it’s really just any of us who choose to eat food grown locally or that has traveled fewer “food miles.”  Food miles are measured in distance from field to fork.  Your non-local meal may have traveled from 4 or 5 different countries and used up a lot of fossil fuels.  As we’ve written before, the most sustainable (and often healthy) choices are found in locally grown food.

How are we advancing locavorism? Well, what we’re not doing is rigidly proclaiming “no more bananas in Iowa!”  But, we are suggesting that everyone make more local choices when they can.  And, we’re talking about how one person doing it can improve others’ lives.  We promote sharing, resilience, and copying – copying nature, that is.

If you aren’t already, we bet now a lot of you are running out to be permaculturist locavores.  Whatever you do, start where you are.

Good, clean fun

In a prior post, we talked about why we focus on cleaning products. So, today, we consider disinfectants.  You know them by names like Lysol, Clorox, PineSol, Brillo, Ajax, Spic and Span and others.  They’re used to reduce or eliminate germs.  Unfortunately, all that germ killing comes with a toxic price. (Did you know Lysol and Clorox bleach are considered pesticides by the EPA?) Many products consist of chemicals like phenol, chlorine, quaternary ammonium (quat what?), aldehydes, formaldehyde…you get the picture.

Several of the chemicals in cleaning products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  This group of chemicals releases organic compounds into the air in your home.  They also contribute to indoor air that is often more polluted than outdoor air — in even the most industrialized cities.

And, here’s an amazing statistic for you: about 25 gallons of toxic products per year are used in the average American home (Hirschorn and Oldenburg).

What can (should) you use instead?  There are plenty of ways to clean naturally, with inexpensive products like baking soda, vinegar, borax, salt and lemon.  Every Tuesday, on our OriginalGreen page on Facebook, we list cleaning methods with these ingredients. In fact, we call the concoctions “recipes.” So far, we’ve covered ovens, sinks, laundry and insect repellant, with more to come.

Another option is to purchase from companies that create safe and environmentally-responsible products like Method, CleanWell and Seventh Generation, to name a few.

At the end of the day, toxic products might make it easier to clean, but they don’t necessarily do a better job. That’s why our mantra is: green cleaning requires faith and elbow grease!

Next time, we’ll talk about detergents (surfactants) – and more opportunities for good, clean fun! Meanwhile, go battle those germs…the natural way.

What can one person do?

That is often the question we hear when we talk to people about what we’re doing and what still needs to be done out there.  Well, it’s actually really easy to do something.  It doesn’t have to be big or involved, either.  Think about it, a lot of people doing small things adds up to a big deal.

You can begin by asking questions. When we started the OriginalGreen project, it was a result of seeing low-income residents suffering from health problems for which there were simple actions for improvement.  We asked questions about how to get the outcomes we wanted.  One of the first steps was to start what we call a “question tree”: begin from the trunk and move to the branches then leaves.  Trunk: Why were our clients having health problems?  Branches: Why didn’t they have better food? Why didn’t they have better access?  Why was there so much indoor air pollution? What toxins could be eliminated? Leaves: Where are the nearest healthy food options?  What products could be substituted for cleaning?

Those leaves led to compiling farmers markets that accept SNAP/EBT benefits, negotiating and securing CSA and community garden plots, and instituting green-clean training.  That’s what we are doing…so far.


Of course you can make your tree, too.  Meanwhile, here are some ideas about the little and big things you can do to help us help residents.  Remember, not everything requires a large time commitment or volunteering.

Healthy eating options:

  • Eat locally.  This means support your local food growers.  Food is often safer (fewer preservatives and chemicals), has traveled less and contributed less to pollution, puts money in the local economy, and importantly helps low-wage earners who work the supply chain.
  • Join or support a community garden or CSA.  Community gardens exist in every state.  The American Community Garden Association defines it as “any piece of land gardened by a group of people.”  CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, is a community of people (usually urban dwellers) who support a local farm by purchasing a weekly share of the harvest. Just like eating locally, these actions support local food growers and help them expand programs to low-income and homeless people.  But they also have the added benefit of enhancing your relationship with neighbors!  You can also donate a garden share to a low-income individual or groups serving them.
  • Shop at your farmers markets.  For the same reasons above.  But also to encourage them to stay and continue serving the community.  The longer they keep going, the more opportunities low-income people have to learn about and use them.
  • Grow food!  Even a small plot or containers will yield a nice amount.  Start a yardsharing co-op with neighbors, or take your extra produce to a local pantry.   And share your success story with us so we can help our clients.
  • Advocate and educate with us.  Learn the issues as we discuss them here and on Facebook and share the good word.  Forward and retweet our posts. Ask your farmers market if it accepts SNAP/EBT. Leave comments on relevant news articles you read and write letters to lawmakers.

Improving indoor air quality:

  • Start using clean products in your home.  The more of us using less of the bad stuff creates less demand, and companies will have to modify the product or stop selling it.  Encourage your friends and family to do the same.  We’re providing “clean recipes” every Tuesday on Facebook.
  • Donate green seal cleaners.  You can buy and donate items to local affordable housing developments or transitional housing.  Find out what products have the Green Seal of approval.
  • Donate indoor house plants. These can also be donated to local affordable housing developments.  Ask your local nursery if they have a donation program.
  • Advocate and educate with us.  Same as above!

So, you see…there is so much one person can do!  Build a tree: ask your questions, find your solutions, get going!