For eons, people came together in communities with a focus on producing food. Cooperative work, often through agriculture, provided greater assurance of a stable source of nourishment, yet as cities developed—and particularly after the dawn of the industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th century—people became gradually disconnected from their food. Instead of being grown outside of their homes in nearby fields, it had to be trucked in to central locations, where it could be purchased.
With the growing awareness of the importance of fresh, local food, there is a movement to bring together daily living and food. People are going back to their agricultural roots, and as a result, whether in urban or suburban settings, agriculture is finding its way back to neighborhoods. In these “agri-hoods,” the connection between food and lifestyle is growing once again.
Nourishment In The Food Desert
Nearly 15 years ago, a group of energetic women decided they wanted to make a positive social change in their urban neighborhood of St. John’s Woods in Portland, Ore.
“It came after the auspices of a community garden,” says Leslie Esinga, the community programs manager of Village Gardens, the organization that supports the multitude of service projects in the neighborhood. “It was incredibly successful.”
The garden at St. John’s Woods had a positive impact from the start, providing fresh vegetables for the residents along with developing leadership skills and a community affinity. Yet, over the years, the property at St. John’s Woods changed hands, and the gardens were relocated several miles away to the area near the New Columbia and Tamarack communities after a transition from a World War II- era housing complex through a Hope VI program.
During the process of creating these new homes for families, there was a little skepticism from the Housing Authority on whether residents would truly participate in community gardens, Esinga says, but participation has been at such a high rate that they had to expand the area.
The 82 gardens named Seeds of Harmony demonstrates the “power of the seed,” as Esinga refers to it from her years of watching the connections happen among the vegetable beds.
“There are 10 different languages that are spoken in the garden,” she says. “Folks get along super well.”
The common ground of the garden builds relationships and creates a deeper sense of community. Plus, these vibrant gardens, which are free of synthetic herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, help relieve economic pressures for the residents.
“It really does offset the grocery bills, especially for large families,” Esinga notes.
To add to the variety in their kitchens, she said they recently installed a fruit orchard called Fruits of Diversity, as part of a partnership with the Portland Fruit Tree Company. Between the gardens and the orchard, more than 35,000 square feet of land is put to use to feed many of the communities’ residents. Plus, a corner grocery store is stocked with locally sourced produce, bulk items, and common staples.
“It’s part of what the community, as part of the Hope VI Project, wanted,” Esinga says. “There are a lot of single female heads of households.”
The closest grocery store is 1½ to 2 miles away, but without a vehicle, it requires riding the bus. Imagine trying to ride a crowded bus with a couple of active young children in tow, and it’s easy to illustrate the challenge of obtaining healthful food in a food desert.
The community also provides a multitude of programs for the neighborhood children, hosts a farmers market, trains community health workers, raises chickens to provide eggs and offers a microeconomic farming program for interested residents.
“We’re trying to cover a lot of bases,” Esinga says.
The greatest challenge for agri-hoods is maintaining and nurturing effective leadership roles, as it takes special people to keep the momentum going and tackle the multitude of projects. It’s much more than simply organizing the planting. It’s setting up potlucks, educational opportunities and speaking outreach and even picking up compost when it’s available.
The desire to be connected with food resonates in the suburban neighborhoods, as well. Instead of centering a development around a golf course, as has been a popular tradition for decades, agri-hoods are beginning to step in as an alternative. Agritopia in Gilbert, Ariz., located outside of Phoenix, was one of the first. Their goal was to create a walkable, self-sustaining neighborhood with a farm as a key feature.
Today, food is central to the neighborhood. There are community-supported-agriculture subscriptions, a farmers market and a community garden.
“We have a date orchard and a citrus and peach orchard,” said Katie Critchley, an Agritopia resident. “We have 30 different fruits and vegetables. And I think we have 200 chickens for eggs.” It’s a treat for people to obtain weekly food directly from the farm on the property.
Agritopia promotes activities among the residents, such as a salsa-making challenge, that encourages people to get to know each other. Finding that common ground, particularly when it involves gardening and food, is one of the best ways to nurture a community, Critchley says.
An interesting twist on the growth of these unique neighborhoods is that they’re a way to preserve the family farm. The property of Agritopia had been in production since the early 1900s, and was purchased by the Johnston family in the 60s, but despite subsequent generations having other aspirations, they didn’t want to lose this special part of their family completely. As a result, Joe Johnston, one of the sons and an engineer, took the farm in another direction, creating a place to build relationships and a true sense of community while maintaining the features of the farm. Even today, the house where he grew up is “Joe’s Farm Grill.”
Preserving the agricultural heritage is also a significant part of what inspired Alann Krivor to purchase the land and create Skokomish Farms on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. They manage the goal of maintaining the openness of the agricultural lands while providing home sites by creating agricultural easements. As a result, owners aren’t purchasing just 40 acres of their own: They’re buying into a larger entity where they can be part of the agricultural direction of the farm, if they choose.
“We’re encouraging our owners to come up with a use for the easement land,” Krivor explains. “They will help create their own agricultural operation.”
With a diverse mix of residents from all over the country and the world, there are bound to be an impressive mix of possible uses.
“None of the owners have any farming background,” Krivor says, but with the deep well of knowledge from the nearby Evergreen State College in Olympia, there’s guidance available for anyone who wishes to delve into a new agricultural endeavor.
They encourage their owners to try new things, and as the projects grow, part of the profits will be returned to the association, ultimately benefitting all of the residents. They’re creating a community where neighbors rely on one another.
With people coming together again through the commonality of healthful fresh food, relationships are built and a sense of community is renewed. It doesn’t have to look the same in every situation, as each of a community’s needs are met differently, but positive change is happening at the soil level.