In this edition of Conquer Life Role Models, meet innovators from the Chicago Community Gardeners Association (CCGA) and learn how gardeners create thriving, empowered communities.
Gardening may be stereotyped as a beloved hobby of retirees, but it also unites people from all walks of life and helps them thrive alongside the plants they grow. The 8th Annual Chicago Community Gardening Conference was held on March 20th, bringing together local leaders to showcase the community-building potential of gardening.
To celebrate this side of garden culture, the CCGA also used the conference to announce their new Legacy Gardener Project:
“It’s an idea that grew out of CCGA’s Education Committee as a desire to recognize those gardeners who have made an impact through their leadership and service. These are gardeners who have taught generations, showing them how to value hard work, how to nurture a tiny seed, and how to feed the soil.”
The stories of this year’s CCGA participants also illustrate the different ways that community gardens can change lives.
The power of gardening starts at an individual level. The stress-reducing power of plants has been documented by Japanese researchers who study “forest bathing,” which is the psychological renewal that people experience when they immerse themselves in nature. For those in urban areas, gardening can produce similar effects to forest bathing.
The action of caring for plants lowers blood pressure and helps overwhelmed, hyperactive nervous systems slow down to healthier levels of activity. Increased levels of positive hormones like dopamine and serotonin are a built-in part of any gardener’s harvest.
According to the CDC, only 1 in 10 American adults eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day.
A study from Saint Louis University found children who help grow their own food are far more likely to have better nutrition. These children are more than twice as likely to eat five servings of vegetables and fruits every day, and they also prefer the taste of fruits and vegetables to other foods.
These nutritional benefits are crucial for any developing body, but many Americans can’t access them, leading to widespread childhood malnutrition and the development of diseases later in life, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Our current system of food distribution, which depends on corporations, is the culprit. If an area has a large population of low income or low mobility people, large grocery stores don’t see it as a profitable place to operate. This system has left many American regions without access to affordable, healthy food. These regions are known as food deserts.
Because corporations have failed to meet this basic human need, grassroots movements like food sovereignty want to empower communities to address it themselves. In the system of food sovereignty, those who produce the food are also the people who consume it and share it directly with their communities.
One proponent of this system is CCGA sponsor Chicago Grows Food. They share how community gardens can extend nutritional benefits to the people that the corporate food system ignores. Those who grow their own food can: “Produce an abundance to share with neighbors, food pantries, and other distribution networks” and “support people’s rights to healthy, affordable, and culturally relevant foods.”
Gardening also grounds people in stronger connections. Those who garden feel more connected to our environment and to the plants that produce the food they eat.
CCGA presenter Emilia Arellano is the Greenhouse Coordinator for the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, and she was on hand to educate gardeners about how even small spaces can create a big connection between a gardener and their environment.
In “Best Practices for Sustainable Gardening in Small Spaces,” Arellano taught conference attendees about companion planting, planting in succession, DIY compost, and more.
For more of Arellano’s expertise, visit the Garfield Park Conservatory (open at limited capacity) or check out the online and in-person events available through the Chicago Park District’s Spring 2021 programming.
Any form of sustainable gardening is about making the most of the environment’s natural resources to achieve the healthiest outcome for humans and for the plants they cultivate.
To illuminate this process, CCGA participants Anaí Brizuela and Lori Upchurch of the Chicago Urban Permaculture Salon presented “Permaculture in Practice.” They taught conference-goers about the principles behind permaculture and its use in “creative regenerative community design.”
Regenerative community design and permaculture are methods of agriculture that are inspired by the cycles and relationships that are found in a natural ecosystem. The innovative philosophy uses an understanding of the water cycle, soil systems, and the needs of different plants to design gardens that flourish in a more independent way.
Through their work in community gardens, participants connect to plants and the planet, but also to other people.
Gardens give community members the chance to collaborate and work towards common goals, and to connect with people who have similar interests.
A study of community gardens in Southeast Toronto concluded that “the garden is a place where ‘people come together… it breaks isolation.’ This is a particularly important benefit of community gardening in communities where social exclusion and marginalization are pervasive problems…”
As they bond over gardening projects, participants share with each other and extend their collaboration beyond the garden: “sharing not only vegetables and tools, but also ideas, across cultures and other social differences was seen as a particularly potent form of social engagement within the gardens… In some cases, this could lead to broader discussions about other, non-garden-related issues of importance to the community.”
Community gardens allow passionate people to connect to nature, support each other, and help their communities flourish. To experience these benefits, try out Chicago community gardening for yourself! Visit the Chicago Park District website to find the garden nearest to you.
At Conquer Life, our goal is to build a community that celebrates those who work hard and follow their passion, to remind each of us that we have the power to do the same. To inspire, motivate, and empower.
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Image credit: Eyoel Kahssay
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