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Guest Column

Historic Westside Gardens: The case to establish food security along with affordable housing

Gil Frank, backyard garden Folks who grow vegetables consume twice the amount of produce as they did before they started their garden, and in seasons when their gardens are fallow, according to research by the University of California. Credit: Historic Westside Gardens

By Guest Columnist GIL FRANK, co-founder and executive director of Historic Westside Gardens

In the affordable housing crisis that brews in Atlanta, lower-income people and marginalized populations suffer most.

Gil Frank

Gil Frank

Historic Westside Gardens focuses on food justice, primarily on Atlanta’s Westside, where it is essential to note at the outset that around 70 percent of residents are lower-income renters. With the increase in rental rates, a large portion pays more than half of their income on rent. Without housing policies that adopt a compelling definition of affordability, and recognize a level of income disparity, the community struggles to prevent displacement and to devise and implement equitable land-use plans.

Housing instability has direct impacts on health, school performance and employment. Stable, affordable housing is the critical platform on which healthy families and communities depend.

Most of the conversation about affordable housing is focusing on the built environment and real estate considerations, and less on addressing other social determinants of health and quality of life. However, inadequate housing conditions impact an individual’s and family’s quality of life, as observed in a report released in September by Westside on the Rise and Mosaic Group: Westside Health Collaborative Community Assessment. With only 17 percent of houses in the area occupied by owners, and many renters residing in single-family homes or old multi-family complexes, people who want to stay in their community and keep their children at their current school face the reality of accepting sub-standard conditions and landlords’ negligence.

Gil Frank, backyard garden

Folks who grow vegetables consume twice the amount of produce as they did before they started their garden, and in seasons when their gardens are fallow, according to research by the University of California. Credit: Historic Westside Gardens

Historic Westside Gardens chose to focus on the lack of food access, the “food desert” problem, while recognizing that people do not live their life in a silo. HWG is aware that, for residents, food access is not, today, their priority. Housing is their priority. How to link these two rights? As one put it: “I can get food either at the food pantry or in the garbage, God forbid. But I cannot find a roof in the garbage. However, when I will get a roof on my head, I will still need to have access to food.”

Based on this analysis, Historic Westside Gardens chose the Urban Home Food Gardening model. HWG is the only organization in Atlanta that develops this branch of urban agriculture. Historic Westside Gardens always looked at food justice as a vehicle to justice, as well as individual and collective self-determination. Historic Westside Gardens’ core work is to educate and build trust, to establish a relational transformation strategy of change.

This model differs from community gardens or urban farms. One of its more significant features relates to our discussion of affordable housing in lower-income, disinvested communities. Because food in HWG’s approach is grown in homes, backyards, and land around apartment complexes, it does not compete with the community’s needs for land, nor with assets dedicated to affordable housing.

In Atlanta, as in many other cities, urban farms sprout in marginalized communities where the land is vacant or cheap. The formula changes when the crisis of housing affordability arrives in these communities. Urban farms become a costly use of land as encroaching development pushes up land values on the food plots, just as development adds displacement pressure for legacy residents and lower-income residents. The term Green Gentrification is often used to address these unintended consequences and this situation looks like another case of Green LULU [Locally Unwanted Land Use]. Hence, I don’t know of urban farms or community gardens that have to ask the neighborhood associations and the neighborhood planning units for recommendation to the Atlanta City Council. The City of Atlanta’s urban farming ordinance does not address this issue. It addresses zoning. These lands could serve as an asset for equitable, affordable housing policy.

Another reason to choose the Urban Home Food Gardening model is that in the next 10 years, HWG will add hundreds more of home food gardeners to its network of 200 gardeners, strengthening civic agriculture.

Gil Frank, community garden

Historic Westside Gardens helps residents grow gardens in homes, backyards, and land around apartment complexes – areas that aren’t pending targets for redevelopment, as is the case with urban farms located on land that’s now vacant. Credit: Historic Westside Gardens

The core of this ability to build trust is attributable to the Garden Angels, who are home food gardening coaches hired only from within the community. This is how the program operates:

  • Residents who enroll receive, at no cost, a wood box garden, soil, seeds, and coaching to grow food pesticide-free and natural methods. HWG coaches, the Garden Angels’ team, visit regularly clusters of home gardeners, using the coaching visit to bring information about other services and opportunity in the Westside for the gardeners and their neighbors. Gardeners also learn composting techniques and are invited to learn about healthful foods and cooking classes.
  • Some gardeners who want to grow more food or don’t have appropriate space grow at three Community Gardening Hubs in the Westside.
  • In 2019, we developed the Healthy Wealth Grown Local program. This is a pilot project for home gardeners who want to grow food at one of our gardening hubs. They can earn money by selling produce, and develop the neighborhood economics through the Westside Growers Market that HWG incubates and is developed by our team leader, Rosario Hernandez.

Besides these practices, there are also many benefits of Urban Home Food Gardens that led us to adopt it. They include:

  • In an environment where low-wealth communities also lack transportation, public or private (40 percent of area residents do not have a vehicle), less travel to a grocery store means saving considerable money (around $100 a month);
  • Increased vegetable consumption. A study by Susan Algert and others, published by the University of California, found that home (and community) gardeners doubled their vegetable intake during the growing season, when vegetables form the garden were available. The researchers also found that home gardening subsidizes household budgets to the tune of $92 a month. That’s not a small amount given that the average SNAP benefit per person in 2019 was $134;
  • Less transportation also means less food waste (even without composting);
  • Besides the social capital and stress relief fostered by food gardening, its connection to nature, and exercise, Urban Home Food Gardens provide yearlong access to fresh produce.

If we were only looking at food security without a complete neighborhood approach that includes all social determinants of health, we would solve only one part of the problem. Residents want food and housing. However, we can cultivate development at the intersection of food and real estate.

Gil Frank, backyard garden box

Historic Westside Gardens provides all the materials and seeds necessary to start a garden, and also provides coaches who show best farming practices and information about healthy eating. Credit: Historic Westside Gardens

I might emphasize that there is an opportunity here for integrating or weaving together housing and food production from the start. Home food production could be in-ground, and optimally placed in the landscape, or it could be high-tech and integrated into the building, e.g. as rooftop gardens or green walls. There are synergies that can be achieved in integrating food production into the building system, e.g., water re-use, green roof to intercept rainwater and reduce stormwater runoff, insulation from heat from green roof and vertical wall production.

Historic Westside Gardens is intentional in sharing our knowledge and experience to explore with urban planners, developers, community leaders the “why” and “how” to integrate food security and food production in the city, with efforts to establish affordable housing, especially in marginalized communities.

We can see that justice requires that we make the right to food and the right to shelter a complete reality.

Note to readers:

Regarding terminology, Historic Westside Gardens prefers to refer to “food deserts” as “food apartheid,” following Leah Penniman’s book, ‘Farming While Black,’ because it is not a natural geographic phenomenon but the fruit of human decisions.

For further reading, see Chin Jou’s book, ‘Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help,’ published in 2017 by the University of Chicago; and the chapter by Gloria Ross and Bill Winders, ‘Shifting Access to Food, Food Deserts in Atlanta, 1980-2010,’ published in 2018 by Vanderbilt University Press; and the Sept. 30 presentation by Isabelle Anguelovski, “Pushing the Boundaries of Urban Sustainability and Climate Planning,” in Barcelona at the Institut Barcelona Estudis Internacionals.




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