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How Urban Gardens Build Community and Food Access

Health & Wellness |  3.10.2020

On corner plots and in vacant lots, community gardens are taking root across America. Demand for urban agriculture is high as cities, non-profits, and community organizations look to address food insecurity. When the nearest well-stocked grocery store is miles away, and there are no farmers’ markets in sight, too many residents go without regular access to healthy foods.

We are committed to finding ways to improve the wellbeing of people in the communities where we live and work. That includes inspiring families and individuals to discover, choose, and prepare healthy food. In some areas it means supporting urban agriculture—defined as cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around urban areas. Often, this takes the form of a community garden.

“We may not be farmers ourselves, but community gardens embody so much of what Aramark believes in,” says Jami Leveen, Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships. “We have spent years investing volunteer hours and grant funding toward these initiatives as part of our goal to increase access to healthy food.”

Throughout this journey, we’ve learned quite a few things from our community partners. Read on to discover what it takes to successfully execute an urban agriculture strategy in your community.

Beyond Hunger

Thoughtfully designed approaches to urban agriculture can have many positive social, health, and economic impacts on low-income communities. “Increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables is critical, but it is also just the beginning,” notes Leveen. “Community gardens can become meaningful community cornerstones.”

Urban agriculture contributes to public health and wellbeing by generating access to healthy food, promoting nutrition education, and creating opportunities for exercise. “Tons of studies show the benefits of being out in the environment, even an urban one,” cites Ethan Neal, a Minneapolis-based thought leader in urban agriculture. “Getting down on your hands and knees, plucking out weeds, pushing a wheelbarrow—all that can make you a healthier person.”

A prosperous community garden also can be a place where different generations and cultures come together and find a communal sense of purpose. The benefits are amplified in communities with refugee settlements, Neal points out: “A lot of folks are coming from rural places where they were used to having their own gardens and farmland. Reintroducing that into their lives allows them to feel truly welcome.”

A Natural Fit

Improving food access, increasing consumption of produce and whole grains, and giving back to the community are part of our enterprise sustainability strategy, Be Well. Do Well. As an extension of this commitment, we have partnered with the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities since 2007 to bring resources to the local level. Through the Alliance, a national network of community-based organizations dedicated to achieving a vision of a healthy and equitable society, we cultivate strong relationships with organizations—and help communities thrive. Urban agriculture fits naturally into this strategy.

“We are often approached by clients and community partners about building gardens and finding new ways to improve access to healthy food,” Leveen explains. “The high level of interest and the inherent complexity of developing an urban agriculture solution inspired us to look for ways to build on the success we’ve had within the communities that are already doing it well.”

Our formal foray into community gardens was for Aramark Building Community Day in 2014. We worked with BakerRipley, a Houston-based multi-service agency committed to bringing resources, education, and connection to the neighborhoods they serve. Their research showed the Greater Hobby Area neighborhood was at heightened risk for chronic disease and obesity—conditions that can be prevented or managed with a healthy lifestyle. Together, we built a 74-bed urban farm featuring fruits and vegetables that would grow well in Houston’s soil and climate.

Group of people around many plots of small gardens
In 2014 Aramark volunteers helped BakerRipley build an urban farm in Houston’s Greater Hobby Area neighborhood, complete with easy-access plots for senior citizens and people with physical disabilities.

More recently, we partnered with Pillsbury United Communities, which operates five outdoor farms in the Minneapolis region. In 2019, nearly 100 Aramark team members volunteered to erect a fence, clean and maintain a hydroponic container garden, and build a harvest and storage facility for their onsite garden.

Pillsbury’s programs provide about 15,000 meals a month where Neal happens to be their Food Systems Manager. “If we want to make changes in the food system, we’ve got to connect people back to the source of where their food came from,” he says.

Replicating Success

Building a garden doesn’t guarantee long-term success. “We’ve learned that organizations must be properly equipped to provide ongoing support and maintenance,” Leveen says. “This is critical because we want to see these projects succeed in the long run.”

To this end, we turned to longtime partners BakerRipley and Pillsbury to distill their best practices into a free toolkit for others to use. “Both of these organizations grow food for neighborhoods that otherwise don’t have sufficient access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They have different approaches, but they achieve consistently successful results,” adds Leveen.

Community feedback has led BakerRipley to focus on four goals: education, food access, community engagement, and wellness. They also host cooking demonstrations and classes on canning, meal prep, and more to make the most of each harvest.

example of a strategic food cycle
Community impact is greater and efficiencies increase when all aspects of the urban agriculture food cycle are strategically linked.

Up north, Pillsbury tailors their urban agriculture to each neighborhood—for example, growing medicinal plants for Native American residents, while employing an East African composting technique at a farm serving a large Somalian population. Their food shelves and free meal programs distribute food to the community with ease. Two years ago, they opened a grocery store in North Minneapolis, bringing affordable, hyperlocal produce to one of the country’s largest food deserts. It’s a nearly closed-loop system with minimal food waste: Pillsbury plants the garden, grows the food, serves it, and saves the seeds for future use.

They also incorporate the free Healthy For Life curriculum developed by Aramark and the American Heart Association to “teach people what to do with all that healthy food,” as Neal puts it.

Top Takeaways

The Maximizing Urban Agriculture toolkit developed in partnership with the Alliance is for any organization looking to launch an urban agriculture strategy. It takes a holistic approach to sourcing, planning, building, and maintaining such an initiative.

“Exploring something like a community garden brings up many questions—some obvious, some less so,” shares Leveen. “Delving into the full thought process is crucial for future success.”

For starters, here are a few things to consider:

  • Assess community needs: What are the local demographics? How will you get neighborhood buy-in and input?
  • Choose your approach: Community gardens are not the only form of urban agriculture. Rooftop gardens, beekeeping, and greenhouses may also work well, depending on your goals and resources.
  • Determine the garden’s purpose: What are the top-line objectives, beyond improving food access? What will you do with the garden’s output?
  • Select a location: Do you have enough space? How is the soil quality and water access? Is the garden widely accessible?
  • Think through logistics: What harvesting equipment will you need? Where will you store excess produce? How will you ensure food safety? Can you hire a professional, full-time farmer?
  • Secure funding: How will you fund the project? What will be the recurring revenue stream?
  • Establish metrics: How will you gauge success, quantitatively and qualitatively?

The bottom line is to not go it alone. “Be willing to put in the time and be honest about your strengths versus who might be better at something—leverage the assets and resources available to you in the community!” says Neal.

Gardening with a Purpose

Community gardens are a promising solution to the food challenges facing urban areas. We see our role as helping Aramark partners and clients think through the value an urban garden can add to their community, and how they can best support it long-term. 

Says Leveen: “This way, each garden is appropriately resourced and positioned for success, before they even break ground.”