Claire Guest grew up in Birmingham and recently graduated from Penn State. She is currently an AmeriCorps member serving with Conservation Alabama.
French satirist and philosopher Voltaire once wrote, in the words of his protagonist Candide, “We must go and cultivate our own garden.” The young hero says this after much misadventure and tragedy, reconciling himself to a life of self-directed improvement in the form of gardening and farming.
Since I began my service with Conservation Alabama, I am in the process of helping community gardens around Birmingham apply for permits to operate with the city government, an implementation of a new ordinance passed in January. This process and debate regarding the regulation of community gardens in the city is just one part of a much larger movement surrounding urban agriculture and food accessibility, a movement tied as much to the continued fight for civil rights and equality as it is to health.
Before I continue, I want to elaborate on Voltaire’s Candide a bit more, if only to prove to myself I retained something from my senior year of high school. The story of Candide is the story of a young, sheltered individual coming to terms with the fact that he lives in a hideously unjust world. His mentor, Dr. Pangloss keeps insisting that things are the way they are because they couldn’t be any other way in this, “the best of all possible worlds.” However, Candide’s experience, while over-the-top and satirical, reveals to the reader just how disconnected Pangloss’ philosophy is from the reality of people’s lives. Candide cannot accept the fact that people needlessly suffer, and at the same time feels powerless to prevent that suffering.
And so Candide’s answer is gardening? One might ask. I’m getting there.
On November 1st, I attended Jefferson County’s Health Action Partnership (HAP) annual meeting as a representative for my agency. In a powerful presentation, Dr. Monica Baskin, an Associate Professor of Preventative Medicine at UAB, revealed that health and quality of life are often a matter of place. Jefferson County’s Place Matters report asserts that many urban, historically black neighborhoods are in the middle of food deserts, or places devoid of grocery stores within a reasonable walking distance. The report argues one historical source for this food and health inequality lies in the old zoning law of 1926, which officially segregated the city into black and white zoning blocks. Even after the law was finally challenged in 1951, the subsequent decades saw federal urban renewal programs displacing an entire 60-block, predominantly black neighborhood, interstates cutting through others and concentrating black and low-income residents in areas of town where there are now some of the highest infant mortality rates and health disparities.
We’re clearly not living in the best of all possible worlds here in the Magic City. However, the existence of urban farms like Jones Valley and community gardens like MPower shine like little rays of hope.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Christa Lyle, Health Coordinator at P.E.E.R. (Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources) and the East Lake Mobile Market truck, as well as the garden manager for the P.E.E.R. community gardens at Eastlake United Methodist church. “Gardening,” Lyle told me, “is a form of preventative medicine.” The existence of a garden creates a space where neighbors can be active together, grow their own food and ultimately eat better, thereby taking control of their health. Gardens empower people to feed themselves, to feed their children, and to control their spaces. These are the small steps forward that count. They are the seeds that must be planted so that something new can grow. We must cultivate this garden.
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