Cheap Food in the City? Grow Your Own

When Janell Fairman and her husband moved to Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, they didn't have a backyard. So, Fairman secured a small plot of land in their local community garden and began growing cherry tomatoes, eggplants and more.

Gardening, Fairman said, has been a beloved hobby for years. And the 68-year-old retired archivist recognizes that growing her own produce could have economic benefits, too.

"I think we eat better for the amount of money that we spend," she said.

As food prices continue to rise, many urbanites are beginning to share Fairman's reasoning. From Boston to Seattle, municipal officials and community organizers are finding an increased demand for plots in community gardens as more residents look to grow their own food.

For city dwellers who don't own outdoor space, community garden plots -- which are typically owned by cities or nonprofit organizations -- are their answer to suburban backyard gardens.

"You get these things, such as increasing food prices and the high cost of gas, and it really bites into a family's budget," said Rachel Surls, the county director for University of California Cooperative Extension, in Los Angeles County. Community gardens, she said, "are an easy way to respond to that."

Paying to Garden

Under a common type of community garden model, users pay an annual fee for the privilege of growing plants on a plot of land within a larger garden. In Portland, Ore., the fee for a 400-square-foot plot of land is $50. But the value of food grown on that land, according to Leslie Pohl-Kosbau, the director of the Portland Parks and Recreation community gardens program, can be many times greater.

"A person, if they're a really good gardener, can raise $500 to $1,000 worth of food on a 20-by-20-foot plot, depending on their skills and by the way they garden," she said.

Pohl-Kosbau said that, generally, it's the desire for fresh, higher quality produce that largely drives Portland's community gardeners. But the recent increase in demand for plots in the city, she said, is at least partly due to rising food prices.

More than 760 people are crowding wait lists, hoping to secure plots in Portland's gardens -- an increase from 578 last year.

In Boston, Valerie Burns, of the Boston Natural Areas Network, estimates that some 1,500 people -- an average of 10 for each of the city's 150 community gardens -- are also waiting for plots.

This time last year, Burns said, the Boston wait list was largely empty.

"Community gardening has always been a supplement to the family food budget," Pohl-Kosbau said. "I think this year, people are particularly mindful of the cost of food."

Cultivation or Construction?

Urban garden advocates hope that the new enthusiasm for community gardens will help save them from a grim fate: extinction.

"The idea that gardens are temporary just has to go away, because if we don't secure these places for generations to come, they will disappear to development," said Pohl-Kosbau.

In the last decade, many cities did, in fact, eye community garden sites for real estate development, said Duncan Hilchey, a senior research associate at Cornell University, who specializes in food systems and agricultural development.

"I think, with the higher food prices, there's going to be a renewed interest in seeing that those properties are secured for local food production and consumption," Hilchey said.

Of course, not all city property is best saved for farming -- at least, according to officials in Seattle.

Recently, the city's transportation department has taken pains to discourage people from planting crops on city-owned strips of land alongside highways and suburban roadways.

The city provides permits to people seeking to grow plants on such land, but Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan said that officials worry that food plants there might fall prey to contamination from automobile exhaust and storm water runoff.

"We're supportive of the idea of people growing crops for themselves," he said, but "not all land is necessarily the best land for urban farming."

Even if fumes and contamination aren't an issue, growing your own food in a city or elsewhere isn't easy.

Gardening School

Openlands, a nonprofit group that works to preserve open space in northern Illinois, offers urban agriculture classes every winter. Classes focusing on growing edible plants are the most popular, said Jamie Zaplatosch, Openlands' education coordinator.

Food plants, Zaplatosch said, can be more temperamental, especially in northern cities where growing seasons are less than ideal. Would-be urban growers learn which time is the best for planting different plants -- spinach, for instance, can be planted in the springtime, while tomatoes should wait until June -- and various gardening techniques.

"We're getting a lot of people in the city really interested in getting the most out of their small urban spaces as they can," Zaplatosch said.

In some cases, it's more than just the gardener who reaps the rewards of community gardens.

The nonprofit group Urban Farming has established some 500 gardens in Detroit and more in other cities across the country. The gardens, said executive director Taja Sevelle, are "borderless" and maintained by volunteers, ranging from retirees to church youth groups. Anyone, she said, can walk on to the gardens to harvest and pick food.

About half of the food grown at Urban Farming's gardens, Sevelle said, is picked by local residents, while the rest is donated to food pantries.

Sevelle thinks of the gardens as a throwback to the old Victory Gardens of the 1940s, when Americans grew food in their backyards to supplement the nation's food supply during a time of war.

"Our goal is to get rid of hunger in our generation," Sevelle said.

"We've had people come to us crying more than once on these gardens and thanking us," she said, "but this year, it's even deeper because food prices have gone up."

Detroit resident Cynthia Johnson, 55, is among those grateful for the gardens. Johnson volunteers at an Urban Farming garden right near her home, and already has plans to eventually make dinner out of what she's helping to plant this season.

"I think it's very inspiring," she said. "To know that you can come to a garden and pick food if you need it, without penalty, is a blessing."