Even in the densest cities, a walk down a crowded, urban street might yield a surprising glimpse of lush, enclosed greenery. Community gardens and front-lawn vegetable patches have become more commonplace over the past decade, yielding positive benefits to those participating in them. Funding sources for community vegetable plots have also increased, creating a larger, beneficial impact upon local communities. Their impact upon our national food system, however, remains up for debate.

Where does our food come from? 

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The wide-ranging infrastructure producing the food found on local supermarket shelves, from both national and international origins, comprises our national food system. The goals of this system supposedly include protection of the public from food-borne illnesses and unsanitary food sources, as well as a stimulation of economic growth. Most food within this chain travels long distances before it reaches our kitchen tables and much of it has been genetically modified. In contrast, food grown in community gardens tends to be organic or natural and is never genetically modified.

Community gardens, while burgeoning in number, supply very little of the total amount of food the average American enjoys, however. Most gardens are small in size, though when well organized, can still pack a wallop both nutritionally and economically for local communities, particularly those situated in economically depressed neighborhoods or in rural areas. Individual gardens also rarely supply all of the food that a family will require and usually encompass just a few crops, such as tomatoes or blueberries.

Community grown equals community impact.

As well as supplying healthy, fresh food to consumers, locally run gardens help to keep revenues within the area being served and often promote a community consciousness based on both service to others and self-reliance. One of these is The Food Project, a non-profit organization operating in the greater Boston area. Combining the goals of youth development, sustainable agriculture and community food access programs, The Food Project supports the efforts of local gardeners representing around 900 lead-safe, raised-bed gardens throughout neighborhoods such as Roxbury and Mattapan.

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Local teenagers get involved at the volunteer level, acquiring skills which support sustainable living and self-sufficiency, as well as an inclination towards eating more vegetables and less processed junk food. Gardeners participating in the program report less reliance on soup kitchens and food pantries and fewer dollars spent in the supermarket, as well as the acquisition of healthier eating habits by their children. “As part of building a sustainable food system, The Food Project’s program model helps educate others about our broken food system and helps transform communities for the better,” says its executive director Selvin L. Chambers III.

Is our national food system broken?

In 2011, 48 million Americans were diagnosed with a food-borne illness such as salmonella or listeria and, out of that number, 3,000 died. Contamination points along the food supply chain can typically be identified, despite regulatory effort and food inspections. While not foolproof, community and at-home gardens dramatically reduce the risks associated with food-borne contamination. Other cited pluses of growing your own include an impact upon agriculturally derived pollution of air, ground and water, as well as the clear-cut benefit of supplying low-cost, organic foods to individuals and businesses that could not otherwise afford them.

Whether you consider our Goliath-sized food system to be broken or merely bruised, community-based food sourcing does support healthier living habits and supplies a proactive alternative for people in both urban and rural areas. While still small in national impact, gardens such as these do give individuals a chance to eat less chemically laden, safer food and generates a smaller, individual carbon footprint as well as the acquisition of better eating habits. At-home and neighborhood gardens may not replace agribusiness anytime soon, but are still powerful for those who partake of them, albeit it on a smaller scale.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.

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