On April 17, The New York Times ran a recipe for a Depression-era chocolate mayonnaise cake. The original recipe was born of a necessity to find a replacement for fresh eggs and butter, which were in short supply during the Depression. In the throes of the COVID pandemic, it’s this kind of crisis creativity that has people thinking seriously about community gardening. Streaming video of food scarcities, reminiscent of Depression-era food lines, makes one thing abundantly clear. Our emergency food system is broken. As emergency food initiatives strain under the weight of these unprecedented times, the future must include equitable solutions that cultivate resilience within marginalized communities. News of a potential second wave of outbreaks means it’s time to ask ourselves a simple question. What can we do now to flatten the coming emergency food curve? As part of an integrated food systems approach, community gardens can flatten the curve in three ways. First, by making the community garden, and the food it produces, as much a part of everyday life as the neighborhood park. When an emergency occurs, a community garden is right where it’s needed most, minimizing the logistics of connecting people and food. Once an emergency is over and ad-hoc food initiatives end, the community garden will still be there.
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A chief takeaway from the recent shortage of personal protective equipment in the medical community is that the best way to manage a spike in demand is to anticipate that demand before it’s needed. Investing in community gardens in good times, ensures that there’s food and a distribution model in place when times are tough. At the personal level, starting a small garden at home can literally be dirt cheap. In just 40 square feet, roughly the floor space of two elevators, you can grow 100 pounds of potatoes or 360 onions. But not everyone is a homeowner with space to start a garden. This is especially true for Black and brown people, due to systemic racial inequities. This is why community gardens are such an important component of an integrated food system. They provide more people with more access to more food. The New Roots Program of the local chapter of the International Rescue Committee is a great example: individual gardeners farm in urban spaces for their families or for supplemental income. On a larger scale, there’s Cultivate Charlottesville’s Urban Agriculture Collective. UAC has been a community partner in Charlottesville for 13 years. It began as resident-led urban farm, producing thousands of pounds of food per year and feeding hundreds of families at no cost to recipients. In the coming months, when demand for fresh produce increases due to job losses and crisis fatigue, UAC will be there, on the ground, to leverage their existing production and distribution model and connection to Charlottesville’s low-wealth communities. Last-mile supply chain issues won’t be a problem because UAC grows and distributes in the very neighborhoods we serve. You might think that an asset as valuable as urban agriculture would be securely established in every municipality, but the reality is that growing in the city is a constant challenge. Development pressure in 2020 has seen UAC’s available farmland reduced by 90%. IRC New Roots, like many urban gardens, is likewise land insecure. And the timing couldn’t be worse. Despite these challenges, when the dust clears and the current COVID crisis has abated, New Roots, UAC, and individual home gardeners will still be there for the long haul employing the alchemy of water, sun, seed and soil to grow good food and healthy communities. In the long run, investing in the future of community gardens is a better bet than relying on a cake made of mayonnaise for the next crisis. Invest with your time by volunteering with a local gardening organization. Invest with your money by supporting IRC New Roots, UAC and other organizations dedicated to food equity. Finally, invest in community resilience by investing in the vision of a Charlottesville that supports community gardens and food equity for all of its citizens.