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Eastown Community Association partners with Urban Roots to grow its community garden

The ECA saw an alignment with the city's Neighborhood Match Fund goals of building stronger connections among residents and promoting equitable outcomes.
ECA community garden

ECA community garden /Donna Ritz

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Growing food can be transformative.

South Central LA resident and urban gardening proponent, Ron Finley has said, "Growing your own food is like printing your own money." In his guerilla gardening TED Talk, he has said he, "Witnessed his garden being a tool for transformation in his neighborhood" allowing you to "take the system back and manufacture your own reality."

The voting rights activist and civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, after turning her attention to economic justice, also found growing one's own food to turn the system on its head. Hamer fiercely believed that her neighbors in Mississippi "would achieve full citizenship only when they controlled their own diet and where the food comes from." The approach Hamer took in the 1960s continues to be a model for food sovereignty.

These ideas resonate as average citizens struggle in a food system perceived to be out of balance and in a neighborhood where gentrification is creating pressures between those whose prospects have risen and those who have not.

It's in this context that the Eastown Community Association (ECA) has been awarded one of the first 13 City of Grand Rapids' Neighborhood Match Fund (NMF) grants for its community garden. Here we will address how that process is going, how the ECA is using the funds, and why the ECA feels it's important for the community.

The ECA's garden is located behind its green building on 415 Ethel Ave SE. In applying for the grant, the ECA recognizes the power of growing one's own food and its role in activating community, in providing a bit of food independence, in creating a place for learning and gathering, and also in contributing to the resiliency of its neighbors. The ECA saw an alignment with the city's NMF goals of building stronger connections among residents, addressing and promoting equitable outcomes, and benefiting the public.

But community gardening comes with challenges. The ECA has had a lot of learning to do in the process of applying for its grant. On the recommendation of the city, the ECA reached out to local community gardening experts, Urban Roots, and its founder and Eastown resident, Levi Gardner. Gardner and Urban Roots have a truly communal approach to gardening—an approach at odds with community gardens structured around individual plots such as those the ECA has had. Gardner critiqued, and the ECA garden had experienced, the phenomenon where individual plot-growers tend to plant the same kinds of vegetables as those in their neighbors' plots. They may grow tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and beans, for example, in the same plot—vegetables with different watering and nutrient requirements. This results in smaller yields than if each crop were planted in an area with like crops to maximize yields. Originally, the ECA had intended to rebuild and increase its raised bed plots but decided to scrap this approach after consulting with Gardner.  

Executive Director, Don Lee has said, "After being educated on what we feel is a more inclusive vision of a community garden that will provide an increased yield, we feel that [Levi's vision] is a more efficient use of the funds." With its NMF grant funds, the ECA still intends to build some elevated beds to provide access for seniors and create other capital improvements to the site in order to encourage opportunities to further activate the garden space for gathering.

Gardner said, "We think while community gardens can be great, many deal with the same challenges including lack of infrastructure, difficulty in communication, lack of tools / resources and the mid-season drop off among others. We are interested in how the communal ownership of a public space can truly contribute to building public good, relationship, community, and production far beyond what is often the case with many traditionally-organized community gardens. We love community gardens, and are excited to see truly communally-run gardens thrive. We are really excited to work with the ECA this year and grow with them where they are!"

With its implementation of the city's Neighborhood Match Fund grant dollars, the ECA is eager to move ahead with a goal of what Ron Finley describes as the “Garden being a tool for transformation…” The ECA recognizes that partnering with Urban Roots will help to realize this potential in the Eastown neighborhood and is willing to learn and tinker to get to that place where neighbors help neighbors and good things happen.

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