Sustainable food: surprising benefits

There’s a growing movement afoot, or rather underfoot, as more people are planning and planting gardens.

A 2010 “Map the Meal Gap” report by Feeding America shows nearly one in five people in North Carolina do not have enough to eat — making the community garden one way to get fresh, seasonal food to those who lack access.

Wake Forest students, with support from the University, launched a community garden in 2009, sharing space with biology professor Gloria Muday and her students who grow tomatoes for research. The garden has provided plentiful fruits and vegetables to Campus Kitchen, an organization that helps feed the hungry in Winston-Salem, and students are hoping the yield will be greater this year as more area is being planted.

“A just and sustainable world, these two things go together,” says religion professor Lucas Johnston. “A community garden, whether at a school, a faith community or a neighborhood, is a way to enjoy healthy, fresh food with less effort. It’s time intensive for one person to try to learn everything about gardening. When a group gets together, each one brings some knowledge to share, making the job easier, and even a few square feet can produce an amazing amount of food.”

Lettuce, tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, and spinach — foods normally associated with healthy eating — have been connected with E. coli and salmonella recalls in past years. These scares, coupled with growing concern for eating healthier in general, are just some of the reasons Johnston says people are dusting the cobwebs from shovels and hoes. According to the American Community Garden Association, upwards of 18,000 community gardens in the U.S. and Canada will provide seasonal foods to local communities this spring and summer.

Lucas Johnston

Religion professor Lucas Johnston

“These foods are not dangerous in their natural state,” says Johnston. “It’s the mode of production that is causing the problem.” As a result, homegrown food is experiencing a resurgence.

“There’s a nostalgia for the way food tasted when we were young,” Johnston says. As we eat fruits and vegetables that we have grown ourselves, we rediscover what foods that haven’t traveled thousands of miles taste like.”

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Community gardens that benefit the hungry help those who are more fortunate to understand the current effects of the economy and government policy on the ability of others to feed their families, says Wake Forest School of Medicine professor Sara Quandt, who has studied community gardens and farmers markets through the Translational Science Institute.

Research shows there are many benefits for children in participating in a community garden, says psychology professor and child development expert Deborah Best. “Children are more likely to try fruits and vegetables that they have helped to grow than those from the grocery store,” says Best. Participating in a community garden improves children’s spatial-relations skills and self-esteem and teaches lessons on teamwork. Studies have shown relations between parents and children are strengthened when the family is invested together in the garden, she adds.

Young and old join together when working on community gardens, says Johnston. It’s a natural way for multiple generations to get to know each other and depending on the outcome, either celebrate success or share disappointment together.

“Community gardens provide people with opportunities to share recipes and eat foods that they might not normally try,” says Johnston. “When you know where your food comes from, there’s an increased accountability and a greater sense of community — and that’s a basic biological and psychological human need.”

Categories: Community, Faculty, Sustainability, Top Stories, Wake Forest College