Learning Guide: Communities Producing Food
From 2011-2016, over three dozen people at five community-based organizations (CBOs), three universities, and one college collaborated on the action, research and education project we called Food Dignity. During those five funded years and two additional ones, we collaborated in mapping and traveling the most appropriate and effective roads forward for creating sustainable community food systems that build food security in the US.
This installment in the series of Food Dignity Learning Guides is a guide to products from the Food Dignity project about community-based food production. It addresses the question, what are the activities and the yields of CBOs supporting this food production?
In this guide, “community food production” means micro-to-mid scale work to produce food, especially fruits and vegetables, for hyper-local consumption via share or sale, including by gardening. Production being “community-based” means the food work is done for, by, and with community members to self-provision and/or to reach explicit food justice goals, as opposed to solely as a business
Four of the five community-based organizations (CBOs) that partnered in Food Dignity produce food, and all five support community-based food production. As one of our papers about this summarizes: “CBOs invest in community food production in eight main ways. Five are directly related to food. Listed roughly in decreasing order of intensity and frequency of the activities, these are: (1) growing vegetables and fruits, (2) supporting community gardens, (3) supporting individual gardeners, (4) supporting local farmers, and (5) fostering other kinds of food production. Additionally, three crosscutting strategies underpin all the CBOs’ work, including community food production: (6) connecting people and organizations, (7) promoting community food systems and (8) integrating their activities with community (as opposed to food) at the center. The CBOs’ goals for these activities are transformational, including achieving community-led and sustainable food security, health, and economic equity.”
This CBO support for community-based food production yields multiple positive outcomes. As another of our papers reports, these benefits include “(1) improving health; (2) producing quality food in nutritionally meaningful quantities; (3) providing cultural services; and (4) fostering healing and transformation.”
For example, in a study where over 30 gardeners in Laramie, Wyoming weighed every food harvest, we found that the average plot (of just over 250 square feet) yielded enough to supply two adults with their recommended daily vegetable servings for 4.5 months. This is even though Laramie, at 7220 ft (nearly 1.5 miles) in elevation, is a tough growing climate, and even though many of the gardeners were novices. (That study was called Team GROW – Gardener Researchers of Wyoming.) These gardeners gave away nearly a third of their produce, on average.
Also, leaders of East New York Farms! in Brooklyn have generated a range of media about food production in Brooklyn and the expectations of urban agriculture. These include a multi-media case study, a video on the history of urban agriculture, and a book chapter. Additionally, in collaboration with someone from Dig Deep Farms in California, an analysis of the “unattainable trifecta” of expectations for urban agriculture in the absence of significant and stable financial supports to achieve them.
Finally, nearly all of the video stories, or I-Stories, that community leaders produced about their journeys to food justice work discuss meanings, potentials, and limits of food and food production in their lives and their work.
Food for thinking
The USDA defines agriculture as “the science or practice of farming, including growing crops and raising animals for the production of food, fiber, fuel and other products.” To be a farm, these products must be sold, or normally sold. Farms that normally sell at least $1,000 worth of agricultural produce are included the USDA farm census. Many of the gardeners in the Team Grow study grow produce worth well over $1,000 each season, but they ate, stored or shared the food, instead of selling it. What are advantages and disadvantages of requiring growers to sell their produce in order to count as a farm?
Having a vegetable garden, keeping chickens, and home beer brewing are examples of ways that people who are normally mainly consumers can also become producers. What value, if any, might that have? What are your closest personal experiences with food production and what lessons, challenges or benefits have you derived from those?
When is gardening a hobby and when is work? During a small-group presentation about some of the Food Dignity results above about gardening, one of the audience members mentioned that she’s a single mother and full-time graduate student, and though gardening sounds great, it also is a lot of work. She asked, when do I get to rest? Sometimes the food movement can romanticize community-based food production, and health promotion messages about healthy behaviors can feel like scolding. Can you think of some sayings or slogans that support community food production yet without making it feel like it’s something everyone should do?
Though the US food supply largely comes from an industrialized food system, much of the world’s food supply still comes from peasant, or community, food production. Extrapolations estimate maybe between 50-70%, though exactly how much is a topic of debate. What skills, if any, do you have in producing food? What resources are available in your community to help you learn more, if you wished?
View the I-stories (less than 3 minutes each) by Pac Rucker, Etheleen Potter, and Jemila Sequeira. What are the promises of growing food that they share, and what do each of their stories indicate are the limits of what community food production, alone, can do?
Trace how each CBO uses food production activities to meet individual and community food justice and security goals in the Food Dignity Collaborative Pathway Models.
Gardeners in Ithaca, New York collaborated with a team at Cornell University to measure their garden harvests in ways similar to Team GROW in Wyoming. See their Ithaca Garden Harvest Log Blog.
A garden ecology project with New York City gardeners and a Cornell PhD student, Megan Gregory, also had a blog, including about their cover crop research.
Gregory, M.M., Leslie, T.W., & Drinkwater, L.D. (2016). Agroecological and socioeconomic characteristics of New York City community gardens: Contributions to urban food security, ecosystem services, and environmental education. Urban Ecosystems, 19(2)763-794. (not open access)
Gregory, M.M & Peters, S.J. (2018). Designing participatory research for scientific, educational & community benefits: A case study of cover crop research with Brooklyn gardeners. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 8(Supp. 1).