Using Community Gardens to Grow Low-Income Communities Out of Food Deserts

As part of the 10 Ideas: Social Innovation to End Discrimination series, a proposal to put food stamps to work supporting community gardens and giving low-income families access to fresh produce.

March 20th marked the third anniversary of the planting of the White House vegetable garden, the first functioning garden since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden. The garden is an essential part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative that aims to help raise a generation of healthy, active kids. But while it provides an excellent jumping off point for discussing the importance of nutrition, it does not get to the root cause of the lack of nutrition across the country. Not everyone can have an organic garden in his backyard or, on an even more basic level, a supermarket that sells quality fruits and vegetables. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 23 million Americans live in “food deserts”: areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, particularly ones composed of predominantly lower income neighborhoods and communities. Before we begin to talk about the problem of nutrition in our country, we must first improve access to food for millions of Americans. And Michelle Obama is on the right path — community gardens can be a powerful tool for improving access to produce for people across the country.

The problem of access and affordability is especially relevant in New York City. A study conducted in 2008 by the mayor’s food policy task force concluded that more than 3 million New Yorkers lack adequate fresh food retailers in their neighborhood. Furthermore, according to the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, there are an estimated 1.4 million New Yorkers that are unable to afford a full supply of food, forcing many to choose more cost efficient, unhealthy options. What all of these numbers amount to is that there are far too many New Yorkers without the ability to access or afford nutritious foods.

Recognizing these problems, Daniel Bowman Simon, who helped spearhead the White House vegetable garden, has now has moved on to helping low-income individuals and families access healthy foods through his organization SNAP Gardens. As of March 2012, over 46 million Americans were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps. Simon encourages SNAP beneficiaries to “grow” their benefits by utilizing a 1973 amendment to the Food Stamp Act that allows food stamp recipients to use their benefits to buy seeds.

Simon’s SNAP Gardens model is a great way to incorporate food stamps into the conversation on food accessibility. In New York City alone there are more than 1.8 million SNAP beneficiaries. However, many New Yorkers do not have the time to plant and care for their own food. Community gardens provide the space and infrastructure for growing food. All that is needed is someone to grow it. Most community gardens already have volunteers and staff, so it would just take a transition out of growing plants and into agriculture to grow food. There are over 500 community gardens across all five boroughs. Converting at least some to agricultural gardens would greatly expand access to fresh, locally grown produce for thousands of New Yorkers.

To accommodate SNAP beneficiaries, each community garden should be given a credit card machine with the capability to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. EBT machines are given to eligible retailers free of charge by the state. This would essentially convert the SNAP Garden model from using benefits to buy the seeds to using them to buy the actual produce from gardens.

There is ample precedent for SNAP benefits being used for purchasing fruits and vegetables at non-supermarket locations. GrowNYC, a New York City nonprofit, runs 43 greenmarkets that accept EBT cards. In 2010, EBT sales exceeded $500,000 across the city, with some farmers reporting that EBT sales comprised as much as 25 to 50 percent of their business. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene also has a farmers’ market Health Bucks program that provides a $2 voucher for fruits and vegetables for every $2 spent at farmers’ markets, increasing the amount of money an individual receiving SNAP benefits can spend on nutritious foods.

Based on the success of GrowNYC’s and the city’s own EBT initiatives, it is very difficult to make the argument that those on food stamps simply do not want nutritious food. It is not a problem of demand. It is a problem of access and affordability to nutritious foods, including fresh produce. Instead of strategies focused on changing demand, the priority should be expanding access and finding ways to make nutritious foods more affordable.

There is no one answer to expanding access and making produce affordable, but community gardens can be a vital part of the solution, and it is one that is often overlooked. By using the existing community garden infrastructure we can grow a better future for all Americans.