Alice Kathryn Richardson

Growth in Gardening

In cities cemented-over and void of vegetation, many residents rely on their local grocers to acquire fresh produce. The average United States grocery store’s produce travels almost 1,500 miles to get from the farm to the store, and in the past two decades, importation of vegetables in the United States has increased from the millions to the billions, say experts across the country. The typical American prepared meal contains ingredients from five different countries, according to another report. To combat the ever-increasing difficulties of eating well while living in a city, Washington, D.C. resident Donald Monroe, 57, turned to gardening in his living room.

Monroe found living in the city made attaining fresh produce difficult: the leafy greens available at his local grocery store were often wilted and too expensive. He decided to start his own garden, but since his apartment building offered no backyard, Monroe turned to growing tomatoes in his foyer instead. In doing so, he found he had added a steady supply of fresh food to his diet and became better friends with his neighbors when he knocked on their doors bearing basil.

Importing vegetables can be very costly, both for the grocer and the customer, and chain stores like Safeway are too expensive for Monroe. “I go where I have to go,” said Monroe, whose diet was supplemented by the local food bank at Bread for the City, which he had been attending for years.

Bread for the City shares fresh vegetables with their clients, encouraging growth in gardening and improved health, and they recently started a farm gleaning program, “collecting extra produce from farms and markets, so every season we collect 50 to 60 thousands pounds of fresh produce for the food pantry,” explains Jeffrey Wankel, 25, Rooftop Coordinator for Bread for the City. “Bread for the City, in the last few years, has been moving more and more towards nutritious healthy items in the pantry. One of the big aspects of that is bringing fresh produce to our clients, but produce is really expensive, it’s really hard to buy.”

This past spring Monroe learned the values of gardening at Bread for the City after they installed a community rooftop garden. Since the start of the garden, he would tend to the plants for a few hours in the morning and then harvest fresh vegetables to take home. A car accident this summer, however, rendered Monroe unable to work in the garden, and so he was left without a healthy or economical option for getting greens. The resolution was immediate and obvious: he would plant his own rooftop garden.

There are clear advantages to growing your own food, says Monroe, “our diets can be improved as well as our budget to a degree, it all depends on how much one is willing to do. [Eating homegrown food] helps keep my diet healthier without the added salt and other kinds of chemicals used in commercial canning.” Donald is a strong proponent of educating people about the benefits of healthy food.

“Being a young senior myself, I think about those who are my elders that live here, also those neighbors who have health issues and have to be very observant of their diets… [and] are learning to be more conscientious about what they eat.” Monroe’s garden not only provides good food to eat, but also cultivates conversation and nurtures relationships. “On the second floor there’s a little old lady, ninety-some years old, and a man next to her, and I’d bring them [basil] and you wouldn’t believe the smiles,” says Monroe. “It brings people together. You wouldn’t believe the smiles from a little veggies.”

Bread for the City hopes that more clients will start gardening on their own, making permanent lifestyle changes in their home and their community. Wankel divulged his highest hope for the garden: “I’d love to see a former client basically have my job as the garden coordinator because that’s really how you can make lasting change in a community is by providing opportunities to the people that live there.”

Gregory Mossoel, 24, is one of those hopeful local residents that loves to garden as much as he loves working with his community. He also works at Montgomery County Community Garden, and finds that working at more than one garden is typical for those already involved in the culture.

“[We are] trying to get more people to come out… just work and learn more about the whole gardening experience and get connected more with the earth.” Mossoel feels that when people work in their own neighborhood they feel a greater need to take care of the environment in which they live. Mossoel, Monroe and Wankel all have growing concerns for the environment and hope to fight it with growing vegetation. They hope that people start taking a greater interest in the environment by adding green to the city, helping to combat many ecological problems in Washington, D.C.

Also addressing this need, Parsons The New School of Design and Habitat for Humanity D.C. are building a new energy-efficient passive housing project for low-income families called Empowerhouse. A passive house is a well-insulated building primarily heated by the sun and people and electronics from within the home, and can reduce energy bills up to ninety percent.

“I am beyond excited about moving into Empowerhouse because I can offer my three children a clean and safe environment to grow in,” says Lakiya Culley, 29, future resident of Empowerhouse. “Living in an environmentally friendly house will help to keep our air safe and my family healthy.”

Washington, D.C. offers incentives to build new energy efficient homes and many are taking advantage. Rooftop gardens increase a building’s energy efficiency, reduce noise, heat, storm water runoff, and improve air and water quality, says Andrew Benenati, Project Manager at DC Greenworks. A well sought after landscape architecture firm in D.C., they see the “vital connection between ecology and economy, between employment potential and environmental sustainability,” and as such, they are continuously involved in environmental projects, particularly residential.

There are myriad ways to help the environment, and many of them start around the neighborhood. Over the summer, Monroe would carry bags of fresh vegetables from Bread for the City’s rooftop garden down to the food bank so that everyone had a chance to partake of the harvest. Without the help of the local food bank, Monroe would not have gotten the fresh food that he needed and been encouraged to care for a garden of his own, and he hopes to grow his garden big enough to help further Bread for the City’s mission: to join in the “mutual collaboration… to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty and to rectify the conditions that perpetuate it.”

Copyright December 14, 2011

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