Jacquelyn Flowers finishes adding coffee grinds she saved up throughout the winter into her soil. Photo by Tiffany Wong

Community Gardens: A Solution to Food Deserts

In areas where grocery stores are scarce, urban community gardens supplement the nutrition of low-income families by providing them with organic fruits and vegetables.

By Kate Faherty

Wangari Gardens, a Washington, D.C., community garden, has been a “lifesaver” for Richelle Harrison.

Harrison suffers from multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that weakens the brain and spinal cord. Wangari Gardens has given Harrison the chance to eat her favorite Vitamin A-rich organic vegetables—kale, collard greens and sweet potatoes— on a budget assisted by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Dietician Amanda Terillo tends the plot reserved for Terrific Inc., a housing and human services organization. Terillo plans field trips for seniors to work on their reserved gardens. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

Juanita McKenzie admires her vegetables that have survived the long winter. McKenzie has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and has been gardening at Wangari for two years. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

Harrison is a 28-year resident of the Parkview neighborhood in D.C., which houses Wangari Gardens. Parkview is a food desert, meaning the neighborhood has low-income residents and low-access to groceries according to the Department of Agriculture Food Access Research Atlas.

Gardens like Wangari, Harrison said, could be a solution to the issue of hunger and food deserts in D.C.

“It would be beautiful if the city would invest in gardens like this for the community and make [community garden plots] first-come, first-serve, based on food stamp [benefits] or income so that if you have food stamps, you don’t have to give up this part of your food stamp money just so you can have organic fruits and vegetables,” Harrison said.

Harrison has received SNAP benefits for about three years, which is right around the time she began gardening at Wangari. She obtained the gardening plot for free through Wangari Garden’s policy to provide personal garden plots to low-income gardeners.

‘There’s a lot of sharing that goes on here. Folks grow more than they can eat.’

— Sonya Baskerville, Wangari Gardens’ outreach co-chair

Garden founder Josh Singer built her a raised garden plot to allow her to garden despite her disabilities. When Harrison’s disability limits her access to the garden, Singer or another Wangari volunteer, Chris Yeazel, picks her ripe vegetables and brings them to Harrison’s home.

“In addition to just providing people healthy food just available for free to everybody, just by its presence here and the conversation it started here, it has started people thinking of healthier food options,” Yeazel said. “There’s some folks here, some residents here that have lived in this neighborhood for many years, and I’ve definitely heard them say that they’ve noticed kind of a snowball effect that was started by the garden here.”

Both Yeazel and Singer expressed their concern that the neighborhood’s gentrification, while helpful to the development of Wangari Gardens, has the potential to push out longtime residents of the community surrounding Wangari. This, Singer said, is a concern.

“With gardens like this you have to ensure you are helping the community and not hurting the community,” Singer said, co-founder of Wangari Gardens and community garden specialist for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. “A lot of these gardens are exclusive and they serve the new people coming in rather than the old people. Gentrification is pushing people out of these gardens.”

Graphic by Kate Faherty.

Graphic by Kate Faherty.

To counteract these concerns, Singer has made conscious efforts to welcome long-time neighborhood residents who garden. Wangari Gardens reserved half of its plots for low-income gardeners. Gardeners can get seeds to plant and can borrow tools from the public shed at Wangari. Gardeners meeting an income requirement have the $50 annual fee for the garden plot waived.

Additionally, all gardeners with a personal plot must contribute one hour per month to maintaining the community garden that surrounds the fenced-in personal gardening plots at Wangari.

The public garden contains 50 fruit trees, a strawberry patch, a variety of gardens, including an herb garden and a vegetable garden with okra, squash and tomatoes and what Josh Singer refered to as “the first D.C. public hammock.”

“There’s a lot of sharing that goes on here. Folks grow more than they can eat. They just like to grow,” said Sonya Baskerville, Wangari Gardens’ outreach co-chair. “I think community gardens are a great service that you wish we’d see more places. I think a lot of open spaces that are reused for tree-planting and stuff can be used for more edibles.”

Revitalizing food deserts

Jonathan Teklu, a graduate student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, is studying the success of solutions to the problem of food deserts. He refers to the successful solutions as “interventions,” and believes that they can revitalize food deserts.

“Those interventions that are successful are the ones that have deep-rooted connections within the community. So it’s not enough for you to have the community association or the neighborhood association as part of it,” Teklu said. “I think community gardens have a good chance of affecting the community because they are the most sustainable.”

Neighborhood resident Jarice Risper moved back to the area in September and is currently on the waitlist to get a plot at Wangari Gardens. She moved back to take care of her father, and moving back into a condo has left her without the fresh fruits and vegetables that she used to grow in her home’s backyard.


Dietician Amanda Terillo tends the plot reserved for Terrific Inc., a housing and human services organization. Terillo plans field trips for seniors to work on their reserved gardens. Photo by Tiffany Wong.

Wangari, Risper said, has been well-received by the residents of the community. She hopes that more community gardens, such as Wangari, will emerge in D.C. food deserts.

Besides being a hopeful applicant to Wangari Gardens, Risper is also a volunteer at a Washington, D.C., homeless shelter. Risper said that job security does not equate to food security.

“You could be in some type of financial crisis where it’s either your rent or eating,” Risper said. “So someone’s gonna try to keep a roof over their head and not eat. Children—you can’t learn if you’re hungry. So to me, if we had more garden plots like this that could actually help feed the communities, I think that would be great.”