In Rochester and many other urban communities nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of residents have turned to community gardening and urban agriculture for produce needs and sense of community.
Marci Muller, horticulture program leader at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Monroe County, believes that overwhelming interest in the organization’s master gardener program, for instance, reflects the community’s increased involvement since the beginning of the pandemic.
Despite a short growing season, she has seen “a tremendous increase in interest with gardening and growing food in Rochester since the pandemic that does not seem to be slowing down.”
Gardens are scattered across Greater Rochester. The area has more than 50 community gardens, according to the CCE-Monroe.
The 2021 National Gardening Survey, published by the National Gardening Association, found that gardening participation increased across the board, with 18.3 million new gardeners. Growth in flower gardening is catching up with the still-strong surge in food gardening, the report says. Forty-two percent of gardeners said they increased their efforts during the pandemic, while 9 percent gardened less. The intent to garden more is particularly pronounced among the gardening cohorts of younger gardeners, gardeners with children, apartment/condo dwellers, and Black and other gardeners of color, the survey states.
A long history of benefits
Community gardening is not a new idea; vacant plots have been used for multifamily gardens for hundreds of years. Food insecurity is not a new phenomenon either and has only been exacerbated during the pandemic. According to Foodlink, a local nonprofit dedicated to ending hunger, food insecurity in the city of Rochester has increased 41 percent since the start of 2020. Nationally, one in seven Americans and one in five children may have experienced some form of food insecurity during 2020, Feeding America reports.
Some experts believe urban agriculture and community gardens could be the answer to a supply of nutritious food for people in urban settings. A study conducted by researchers in Flint, Mich., found that adults who participated in community gardening efforts were 1.4 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables at least once a day and 3.5 times more likely to consume these foods at least five times a day.
Physical health and nutrition are not the only benefits of community gardening, however. Similar studies have found that there are stress-relieving elements associated with these gardens as well. A study published in the Journal of Health Psychology found that gardening promotes relief from acute stress.
Leslie Knox, board chair for Taproot Collective in Rochester, says that “having a space for the community offers passive benefits, even if you’re not helping grow things on the space.”
Taproot, which aims to design and build holistic systems for healthy local food, dignified housing, and educational opportunities with youth and families, helps support local organizations and community growers seeking to strengthen neighborhood connections and expand access to healthy greenspaces and food.
A New York University School of Law study found that the opening and maintaining of community gardens has been linked to “increasing rates of homeownership, and thus may be serving as catalysts for economic redevelopment of the community.” Another study found that gardens prevent urban blight and other problems associated with vacant lots.
The role of community gardens
First Market Farm, maintained by Taproot Collective in North Marketview Heights is located across the street from the Rochester Public Market. First Market Farm has 4,500 square feet of growing space, beehives, and a greenhouse—all available for use by the community. In addition, the space is used for community events like yoga classes and educational programs, and as a general meeting place.
Knox believes that community gardens give members “the option to make choices about what greenspaces look like to meet their neighborhood and community needs.”
“First Market Farm is not the answer to but is part of the answer to (help make Rochester better),” she adds.
First Market Farm and the team at Taproot Collective provide community members an opportunity to be more engaged citizens through educational programs and involvement at their garden. Nutritional literacy and general outdoor knowledge like “leaving a spot better than you found it” are examples of basic knowledge gained through involvement. On a deeper level, members are able to create connections with fellow community members.
“It offers a space for collaboration and companionship, so you get to know people in different spaces and on different terms,” Knox says.
Located between Swillburg and the South Wedge neighborhoods is 490 Farmers. This garden is unique as it sits on a plot of state-owned land on the edge of Interstate 490, the first of its kind in the state.
Similar to First Market Farm, organizers view the space as more than a place for people to grow food. The goal of the farm is to “eliminate food insecurity, provide land access to urban dwellers, and create opportunities for sustainability education and community building that enhance the quality of life for Rochester residents.”
“We saw this piece of land and said how can we transform this space to better benefit the community members,” says Rachel Snyder, business consultant for 490 Farmers.
In addition to allowing people to grow their own food and have access to greenspace in an urban setting, 490 Farmers also has an area called the free food forest where community members can pick a variety of fruits, berries, herbs, and vegetables. A free food pantry at the front of the property features non-perishables.
In the town of Perinton, a community garden also encourages sustainable living and gardening. Through a collaborative approach, neighbors, community groups and local agencies support locally-grown food, offer educational programs, and nurture health and wellness. The Perinton Community Garden is in Potter Park, the original site for a victory garden during World War II. Residents of Fairport and Perinton can rent a raised bed and learn to grow their own produce and flowers.
Here to stay
New York, which defines community gardens as public or private lands where residents can garden on lands they do not own, is committed to promoting and fostering growth, in number and acreage, of these spaces. Through its survey for its comprehensive plan—Rochester 2034—the city discovered a “resounding community call for more gardens on vacant lots and reduced regulatory burdens to do so.” The city, which offers permits for such projects, however, warns of challenges in terms of labor and organizational efforts.
“Rochester is poised to embrace urban agriculture on a larger scale. We have available land and intend to refine regulations to encourage these activities. As concerns about access to healthy food and overdependence on non-local sources continue to rise, the Flower City should nurture this emerging trend,” the plan states.
The 2034 plan outlines some ideas including the use of hydroponic agriculture, which uses nutrient-rich water rather than soil to grow plants; edible landscapes in the city; and the creation of a food policy council, tasked with examining food access issues, needs, gaps and opportunities, in turn informing city policy.
When the pandemic created more food insecurity for a community without steady access to fresh food, 490 Farmers tried to fill that gap. Snyder says that community gardens, like 490 Farmers, help to make community members less reliant on the supply chain.
While community gardens and urban agriculture projects are not the answer to solving food insecurity, they serve as one way to mitigate the challenge.
“A big part of it is the empowerment that members can grow food for their family and gain some better nutrition,” Muller says.
What these gardens do best for their members is provide a place for community growth. One study of Upstate New York community gardens showed that these urban agricultural spots in low-income neighborhoods led to increased levels of organizing efforts to address local issues as well the promotion of effective health practices.
Gardens allow community members to “be a part of an organic movement to help your community grow while getting to meet with and interact with folks that you might not get to meet during a time where we all need community connection more than ever,” Snyder says.
Mackenzie Kenyon is a senior at St. John Fisher College. Rochester Beacon managing editor Smriti Jacob contributed to this story. Interactive map created by Jacob Schermerhorn, a former Rochester Beacon intern and graduate student at the City University of New York.