| By Natalie Mousa
Community gardens are continuously growing in the City of Orlando. They provide a sense of community, food, and positively contribute to protecting the environment. A community garden can consist of one or several plots that grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs for the local community.
In the City of Orlando, there are 16 community gardens, all which are self-managed by those involved in each garden. Additionally, IDEAS For Us’s urban agriculture program Fleet Farming has installed 10 community gardens, 19 school gardens, and 14 farmlettes (or micro farms) around Orlando with the opportunity for more growth.
Map of School Gardens, Community Garden, and Farmlettes in Orlando. Interactive map available here.
Why Community Gardens?
Community gardens provide the space for powerful neighborhood-level social change. When a group of neighbors joins together to organize, build, and manage a community garden, they bring an impressive array of benefits to their community.
These gardens require a level of teamwork to maintain, promoting members of a community to work together. This in turn increases the feeling of community between members. These connections help reduce crime, empower and allow residents to feel safe in their neighborhoods.1 In Philadelphia, burglaries and thefts in one precinct dropped by 90% after police helped residents clean up vacant lots and plant gardens.9 This resulted in a reduction from 40 crimes a month to an average of about 4 crimes a month.
Community gardens also increase physical and mental health in the community. This can occur through the physical activity required to maintain the garden. The increase in physical activity will result in a reduced risk of obesity and obesity-related diseases.2 As well, members of the community garden are more likely to eat more fruits and vegetables now, as they are self-grown and free. This will help improve the community’s overall health through better nutrition and increased access to fresh food.
Gardening also promotes relaxation, reducing stress and positively impacting people’s mental health. A study regarding the stress relieving effects of gardening found that gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group.
Community gardens provide a numerous amount of environmental benefits. They fight climate change by reducing the distance food travels, and minimize the carbon footprint of food. Community gardens also positively impact the urban microclimate. They do so by helping improve the air and soil quality, along with increasing the biodiversity of plants and animals in the community.2
Waste reduction in the community through composting also provides for a more positive environmental impact. Members of a community garden can compost their waste to increase the nutrient quality of their soil. Community gardens that do not use pesticides also benefit the environment by promoting better air and soil quality.3
In the United States, a meal travels about 13,000 miles, on average, before reaching your plate. Fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets spend as many as 7 to 14 days in transit. During this time, almost 50% of the transported food is lost to spoilage.8 Locally sourcing one’s food not only cuts the carbon emissions from travel, but can also reflect up to 20-25% radiation from the sun.4
Members of a community garden can expect to experience an array of economic benefits. The direct and indirect health costs associated with obesity are estimated at $117 billion per year, nationwide, in the form of worker absenteeism, health care premiums, co-payments and out-of-pocket expenses.4 Due to the increase in physical activity required to maintain a garden, members have a lower chance of getting sick, which in turn results in less medical bills.
Members can also benefit economically by selling any excess crops at their local farmers market, creating social capital and boosting the local economy.6 Having a community garden in a neighborhood adds to the value of one’s property value. In New York, neighborhoods surrounding a community garden saw a 9.4% increase in property values within the first five years of its opening.4
Pesticides in Crops
“There are hundreds and hundreds of pesticides that are used in agriculture,” Jeannie, the Pesticide Safety and Environmental Health Project Coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida stated in a June 2021 interview with Fleet Farming. “More recently, the EPA even approved the use of antibiotics for use on citrus crops in Florida in California, in spite of the fact of the rampant problem of antibiotic resistance in people and animals due to the overuse of antibiotics,” she stated.
Jeannie highlighted that many of the pesticides, such as aldicarb and paraquat, are banned in other countries while still being used in crops here in the US. These pesticides “have been found in our groundwater and drinking water, in our soils, as residues on our food, and in our bodies.”
Community gardens serve as a way to eliminate pesticide use in crops we consume and in the environment. Jeannie highlighted that the use of pesticides “kills beneficial bacteria and other important organisms in the soil that are there to help to build soil and maintain its health.” “Unhealthy soils are less able to sequester carbon and that impacts climate change,” she urged.
Along with degrading the quality of soil, pesticides disrupt the natural order in the ecosystem. Jeannie attributes this to the fact that “animals higher on the food chain that eat smaller organisms with pesticides can accumulate higher levels of pesticides in their bodies.”
Pesticide use in crops is a growing concern in the United States. Switching to a community garden or growing your own crops is a great way to avoid consuming the harmful pesticides put into large-scale farming. If growing your own crops is not an option, shopping organic is the preferable way to buy your fruits and vegetables.
Natural pest management can be a solution to harmful pesticides. To learn more about the different pesticides, check out Fleet Farming’s Natural Pest Management Resource Guide.
Farmworkers get sprayed with pesticides almost everyday, exposing them to harmful chemicals. In a video by EarthJustice, the Environmental Protection Agency found that an estimated 20,000 farmworkers experience the harmful effects of pesticide poisoning every year. Beyond the acute poisonings, there are long-term, chronic health effects such as cancer, Parkinsons’ Disease, asthma, birth defects, and neurological harms, including developmental delays and learning disabilities.
These farmworkers are left without a voice, because if they protest or fight against the use of these pesticides to their employer, they are often reprimanded, given less hours of work, or released from their occupational position altogether.
“Farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides is an environmental justice issue… [they] are one of the most vulnerable populations in our country,” Jeannie expressed. Many of these farmworkers are low-income, do not speak English, or have healthcare access.
Exposure of pesticides can occur through several routes such as respiration or through dermal contact. After leaving the farm, pesticide residue left on their clothes can result in exposure to other family members. As well, Jeannie highlighted that “some pesticides are endocrine disruptors,” meaning that “they impact the endocrine system and a person’s hormones, which can in turn affect the second and third generation of farmworkers who are exposed.”
During the hot summer months, farmworkers are exposed to extreme heat conditions that have a negative impact on their health. Excessive heat includes outdoor or indoor exposure to heat that exceeds the capacities of the body to maintain normal body functions and may cause heat-related injury, illness, or fatality. This is very common in high temperature states such as Florida, California, and Arizona.
In terms of environmental justice, these at-risk communities often experience a decreased sense of power within their own communities against major food producers bringing economic benefits to the area and local governments that in many cases historically put a blind eye to farmworker rights. This statement is supported by the documentary “Harvest of Shame”, that discusses the systematic oppression of migrant farmworkers.
“It is the great paradox of our food system: the very people who work to feed the U.S. struggle to feed their own families.”5 Farmworkers are often migrants who face low-wages and are taken advantage of. Agricultural work is hard work and farmworkers are exposed to safety and health concerns by being out in the fields daily.
“The problem is that our system of agriculture is increasingly dominated by large corporate farms that are not community based,” Jeannie said. These large corporate farms take advantage of the fact that they are able to pay migrant workers lower wages. By buying these crops, we are supporting these corporations’ ability to abuse farmworkers rights.
Education is Key
Environmental Justice assumes and recognizes community care and Indigenous and first nations’ knowledge. It acknowledges how privilege, power, and oppression are integral to our understanding of how we are impacted by climate change and our environment.7
Jeannie encourages that people demand the banning of pesticides and phasing them out. “Community gardens are a good first step, but without changes in policies and without wresting control from major agricultural corporations, community gardens are a ‘feel good’ measure,” she said.
“Educating your family, friends and community members is another action step and even a responsibility for people who want to make a difference,” Jeannie addressed. It is important to share your knowledge about the harmful use of pesticides to yourself, your community, and farmers to those you know. Sharing knowledge can be done in several ways; asking your local government to stop using pesticides on city and country parks, asking your school to switch to using Integrated Pest Management techniques to keep children safe, getting involved in campaigns that advocate for farmworker rights and pesticide elimination. There are many other ways you can contribute to this growing movement.
How You Can Help
Fleet Farming provides an extensive amount of resources for you to begin your own vegetable/fruit garden. As well, Fleet Farming offers a service in Orlando, FL where they come to your home and build you an edible landscape to make your life easier! This can range from cedar raised beds, food forests, and fruit trees.
“Buying organic sends a message to the agriculture industry that consumers and the public want food that is not tainted with pesticides,” Jeannie addressed. While shopping organic does not mean that farmworkers are not exposed to heat conditions or unreasonable wages, they are at less of a risk of being exposed to pesticides. It is also better for your health.
IDEAS For Us has partnered with One Tree planted to plant fruit trees in many different communities in need. Check out IDEAS For Us’s Eventbrite to volunteer for one of these events.
There are multiple bills going around to protect farmworkers and BIPOC farmers from the harmful conditions they are exposed to. Call your representative urging them to support these bills:
Asunciacion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act is a bill that requires the Department of Labor to promulgate an occupational safety or health standard on prevention of exposure to excessive heat.
Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act would provide desperately needed improvement to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). This would include banning some of the most damaging pesticides scientifically known to cause significant harm to people and the environment. The Act would better protect people and the environment from the harms caused by dangerous pesticides.
The Justice for Black Farmers Act is intended to address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers. This will require reforms within the Department of Agriculture ro prevent future discrimination.
The Farmworker Association of Florida is an organization that advocates for farmworker rights in Florida. The Agricultural Justice Project is working on supporting farms that are both organic and social just to farmworkers. To connect with organizations working for an end to dependence on pesticides, look into Pesticide Action Network North America.