Community garden is grass-roots nutrition
This is my third year as a gardener, and so far it’s my best one yet.
Already, I’ve gotten a fair amount of vegetables, and there will be more to come.
I’ve been eating cucumbers, lettuce, zucchini, peas, kale and pesto made with fresh basil that I grew myself. Soon there will be a variety of tomatoes, as well as okra, beans, melons, peppers and bok choy.
I’m an unlikely gardener.
My parents have always had a garden, but I never had any interest in it. My history with household plants is poor, and I’ve never been that enthusiastic about vegetables. But when my landlord asked me whether I wanted to share a garden, I said yes. Maybe I would be more excited about vegetables if I grew them myself.
My landlord and I don’t have a yard.
Instead we have a plot in one of the community gardens run by the Troy-based nonprofit organization Capital District Community Gardens, which maintains 49 community gardens in Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer and southern Saratoga counties. Signing up for a plot costs $30. The CDCG provides tools, water and brown bags for disposing of weeds.
On Sunday night I ate kale steamed in garlic and olive oil, zucchini sauteed in butter and pasta mixed with the pesto I’d made the day before. It was an extremely satisfying meal, and I marveled at how easy it all was to put together.
But a lot of people find it difficult to eat well, especially in urban areas like the one I live in. Large sections of Albany, Schenectady and Troy are considered food deserts — places that lack access to affordable and high-quality fresh food. Food deserts are also common in rural areas, where a good grocery store might be 20 to 30 minutes away.
Thinking about my garden prompted me to take a second look at Gazette reporter Bethany Bump’s June 15 article about local efforts to improve access to fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods. The piece mentioned a number of promising initiatives, such as the farmers market in Schenectady’s Bellevue neighborhood and CDCG’s Healthy Convenience Store Initiative, which provides city convenience stores with cheap, locally grown produce to sell.
But access is not enough.
People often need to be taught how to prepare and eat fresh fruits and vegetables, which often are unfamiliar to them. This makes sense: If you’re unaccustomed to eating produce, you’re probably not going to know what to do with, say, a bag full of kale. This is actually something I can relate to, as the list of foods I’d never eaten until I went to college is extensive. For instance, I’d never eaten kale, or pesto or okra.
Another challenge faced by people who want to improve their diet is time, or the lack thereof.
When fresh fruits and vegetables aren’t readily available, keeping the house stocked with produce can be difficult.
I have a car, and I can go to the grocery store whenever I want. But low-income people are less likely to have that kind of flexibility, because they’re less likely to own their own vehicles.
The Capital Region’s network of community gardens is a great thing, but gardening isn’t for everyone. It’s work, and it requires a certain amount of regular maintenance. There are evenings when walking to the garden to pick a few vegetables seems like an enormous task, and days when I just don’t feel that excited about vegetables.
One thing advocates of healthy eating don’t always acknowledge is that people eat junk food because it’s yummy.
In other words, while it might be true that low-income people don’t always have access to fresh produce, and that they don’t always know how to prepare it, it’s also true that they sometimes eat junk food for the same reason I do: It tastes yummy. Yes, there are times when I would rather eat Doritos than an apple, or drink a Coke than drink water. I might have a garden, but I still eat candy bars and ice cream from time to time.
That said, I don’t want to downplay the problems posed by poor diet.
Health issues such as obesity and diabetes are often linked to eating badly, along with other factors, such as a lack of exercise and large portion sizes. The good news is that people can learn to eat better and improve their health in the process; one recent study, from Great Britain, even suggested that it’s possible to teach kids to eat vegetables.
But I don’t need a study to tell me that it’s possible to learn to eat produce.
My own experience tells me that it’s possible.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org.