Community gardens not only increase people’s consumption of fresh produce, but they also improve overall physical and mental health of kids and adults alike by getting them outdoors, interacting with other people in their communities, and giving them the chance to later cook the foods they’ve personally grown and nurtured.
Fred Conrad is the community garden coordinator at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Conrad leads The Food Bank in fulfilling the needs of more than 100 community gardens around the city of Atlanta by providing appropriate materials and resources for them to thrive. Conrad will present at the 18th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Recipe for Change: Better Farms, Better Flavors, which will be held on Feb. 20-21, 2015, at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga. We spoke to Fred about his experience with community gardens and their transformative impact on communities.
You’ve been working on community gardens for a long time. What have been the most significant changes you’ve seen over the years?
There used to be two major clusters of community gardens in metro Atlanta. One in SW Atlanta and one in central DeKalb/Decatur. There was only one community garden using strict organic practices and no market gardens inside the perimeter. The local food movement exploded the geography of community gardens and there are now community gardens in areas of relatively low population density, such as Royston and Canton. There are many more community gardens aspiring to be organic, but if you haven’t gone through certification most people don’t really know what that entails.
What would you say defines a successful community garden?
An active and friendly core group (steering committee) of three to five members and bylaws that are written not to control but to minimize conflict. You need a few people who are organizers and are going to make the workdays happen, make phone calls, deal with the powers that be, set up meeting schedules, print the sign-up sheet for the pot-luck. A lot of stumbling can be avoided if things like pet management, food waste, and attendance are spelled out from the beginning. The more social the garden is the better and gardeners that pay dues are more likely to stay through the season.
What are some of the next challenges you think community gardens will need to tackle to progress in Georgia?
This isn’t a new issue: it’s very difficult to move from a volunteer organization to an incorporated organization with paid staff and programming. The typical community garden is happy just being what they are. Others are not satisfied with engaging thirty or so people in the neighborhood and want to reach out to include everyone and everyone can be hundreds of people. Grilling organic hot dogs with your friends is one thing, inviting the senior center and the nursing care facility and the subsidized housing and the elementary school requires insurance, signage, transportation, a sponsor and a lot of organic hot dogs. Most community gardens do not want to do a lot of special events and fund-raising.
What’s the most positive impact you’ve seen community gardens provide to a community?
To be honest, every community garden has a story. On an individual human level, gardening is low-impact and involves lifting, stretching, bending, sunshine and good food, so there is a collective health impact. More visibly, there are a number of formerly derelict properties that are now beautiful and loved growing and gathering spaces. Community gardens change the way people interact with public parks in a positive way, the same is true of many places of worship that possess underutilized greenspace (and parking space). Community gardens create opportunities for cultural mingling and there is some terrific therapeutic gardening going on in community gardens. Also, community gardens donated over 100,000 pounds of fresh local produce to people in need this year.
What’s the single biggest obstacle a brand new community garden must overcome to survive?
I am currently listing 165 defunct community gardens and I’m pretty sure they ended for 165 different reasons. Many of those encountered obstacles that were entirely out of their control. The others, well, community gardening is 90 percent politics and 10 percent gardening.