Community gardens help Michigan adapt to climate change

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A car filled with produce from the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative.

By Hope O’Dell
Great Lakes Echo

In the western Upper Peninsula, climate change is hurting local food sources.

This story is part of an occasional series called “Climate Solutions.”

Warming water temperatures reduce fish spawning and snow compresses on itself less during the winter –– which hurts wild rice, said Rachael Pressley, a regional planner with Western U.P. Planning and Development Region. Habitat warming allows new species of plants and trees to migrate northward, along with invasive pests.

For example, the Drosophila—a type of fruit fly—lays eggs in berries, causing them to ripen and die too quickly to be harvested. They are now able to survive in the U.P. because the climate has warmed.

As the effects of climate change impact day-to-day necessities like food security, community gardens can operate as one avenue of adaptation, said Jennifer Hodbod, an associate professor in Michigan State University’s department of community sustainability.

Pressley is a member of the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative, a grassroots movement working to repair the U.P.’s food system damaged by climate change and a lack of grocery stores in rural areas.

The collaborative helps build gardens through community programs and in schools, shelters and low-income housing. It also encourages edible landscaping and foraging.

“A huge part of our work is remembering and challenging this scarcity mindset, and realigning us with the abundance that we see all around,” Pressley said.

Community gardens can help residents not be solely dependent on grocery stores for their food supply, Hodbod said.

Community gardens can also provide relief from heat islands—urban areas that are hotter than outside the city—and can be an opportunity to use wastewater.

Along with the tangible benefits, Hodbod said these gardens can benefit a community socially through knowledge-sharing and creating a sense of unity. This can teach people alternative approaches to food production.

“There’s also an education opportunity there to really demonstrate to local communities what food you can grow and what diverse diet does look like.” she said.

Hodbod said this is especially true in rural areas, where climate change has impacted growing seasons and created environments suitable for invasive species.

Kirk Jones, the managing director of Project Grow, an Ann Arbor-based community garden nonprofit, said the community-building aspect is another important benefit.

“Community-building, I think, is really a valuable part of this. Like I said, you meet people, and it’s very easy to get involved. It’s not bureaucratic,” Jones said.

This community-building can help fend off the mental stress that comes from seeing and experiencing the effects of extreme climate events, according to a report by Margaret Walkover of the University of Hawaii-Manoa and Linda Helland of the California Department of Public Health.

These mental health issues can range from “transient distress to longer-term symptoms,” even going as far as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Research demonstrates that positive social support is an essential factor in building and maintaining physical and mental resilience for people in all states of health—from robust to highly symptomatic,” the report said.

Community spaces, like community gardens, can help this positive social support. These spaces allow people from differing socioeconomic backgrounds to provide support to one another, according to the report, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Participants in Project Grow’s approximately 20 gardens are not just homogenous, Jones said. They include residents of apartment buildings who wouldn’t otherwise have access to land and homeowners whose lots aren’t suitable for growing.

While community gardens can be both environmentally and socially beneficial, there are limitations due to the efficiency, scale and accessibility of many gardens. Jones said he wasn’t sure if community gardens could be a plausible solution because of their small scale.

“On a national scale, is there really fewer emissions created by somebody growing their own stuff, which might require them driving their car, you know, a couple, three miles, every time they visit the garden, you know, for a very small amount of production,” Jones said.

Hodbod said urban gardens often aren’t the most efficient way to grow produce, and unless tied to an organization that gives the food out to the food insecure, it often doesn’t reach those who need it most.

Pressley said this is because often those who have the time to garden aren’t those who need the food the most.

“Only people that can afford to have the time to garden there are able to do it, and so the people that actually need the garden space are still not getting to it because of the way that community gardens are typically built—typically farther away—and they’re not where people live,” Pressley said. “They’re usually dominated by people who already have their own land or already have the means to buy their own food.”

Hodbod said equitable access can be improved by making tools and seeds free and starting gardens in schools to get people gardening younger.

Pressley said the Western U.P. Food Systems Collaborative works to bridge this gap by making seeds and compost available and through a mutual aid program where those with land plant gardens in their yards for anyone who needs the crops to take.

Residents who grow their own food in community gardens can provide an alternative to buying at the grocery store. In this side step of capitalism, Pressley sees the potential in community gardens to mitigate the effects of climate change on food systems. In growing their own food, residents can become more resilient, she said.

“My vision is the same vision as the people that came before me,” Pressley said. “Which is a more equitable and just food system, where all beings –– not just people –– can thrive, can eat seasonally and can be connected to the land and to each other.”

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