Urban food gardens are an important way to help trickle-feed much-needed fresh produce into our kitchens. They’re also a key way to remind urbanites, who are now so far removed from the soil that gives us our food, that growing food is something that needs time, dedication, skill and plenty of resources. It teaches us the real value of food.
While food garden initiatives are often well meaning, there are very real reasons why they fail. We must bear this in mind when we craft policies and development projects that are geared towards addressing food and hunger issues in the urban context. We must also guard against getting locked into urban gardens as the only solution.
It’s useful to understand why some food gardens succeed, and why others fail, because it means we can be more intelligent about planning and rolling out other similar project in the future.
Urban food gardens in poorer communities often fail, not due to a lack of interest, but because the investment is too high. One lady, explaining to the University of Cape Town researchers about the communities she works with in Philippi on the Cape Flats, pointed out that the people she trained in food growing were often so poor that they had to be very strategic about how they used their time and labour. For many, they needed to trade their labour for work that paid in cash this week so they could buy food immediately, rather than invest in the promise of fresh vegetables in a month’s time. This is particularly true when considering that one bad heat wave or pest outbreak could destroy such a large time and resource investment.
Researchers looking at success rates of some food gardening initiatives in poorer communities found that the ones that worked were often those that employed people from a community to work in the gardens for a wage. Gardens that provide jobs first, before food, often succeed.
Take home message: People choose to buy certain foods over others, or to invest in growing their own food, for rational financial and practical reasons. It’s important for city planners and civil society organisations to remember this, particularly when thinking of starting up food gardening initiatives in poor communities. The best intentions to support struggling families might fail because of the tough financial realities they face.