by Zaïré Talon Daniels
If you were like me as a child, and believed that food “lived” at the grocery store, ready to be bought and taken home for human consumption, you’re not alone.
Today, many Americans are becoming more conscious about what foods they are putting in their bodies and where the food is coming from. This trend in food consumption has also shed light on the need for sustainable food networks to ensure that everyone has access to proper nutrition.
Let’s Grow Akron is a local non-profit organization dedicated to creating, supporting, and educating residents about sustainable food networks. The organization was founded in 1988 by Elaine Evans after she had been tasked by the city of Akron to assess vacant lots in Summit Lake. She began to see the potential of these vacant lots to be used for growing food. From this initial push, the next 30 years of hard work has served the community by helping to create roughly 70 community gardens.
“In 1988, it wasn’t such a trendy topic, so it was kind of visionary It wasn’t happening at the time at all,” says Let’s Grow Akron executive director Lisa Nunn.
Today, Let’s Grow Akron manages 30 of its own gardens and supports an additional 40 neighborhood gardens with labor, equipment and information about things like where to find good soil.
In addition, Let’s Grow Akron has flowered into an organization that offers special programs such as the Summit Lake Neighborhood Farmers Market, educational home gardening workshops, donations to local food banks, free seed giveaways, and cooking demonstrations.
On May 20, I visited Let’s Grow Akron Headquarters Community Garden located on the corner of Harvey Avenue and 2nd Street Southwest. I spoke with Lisa and some employees while they ate lunch — much of which was grown in the headquarters garden.
How Let’s Grow Akron grows food across the city
Starting and maintaining a community garden is a huge undertaking. The staff at Let’s Grow Akron begins their season in March, acquiring resources for gardening and implementing plans for the growing season.
Seasonal employee Maggie Duff says, “We help out with some of the harder tasks — tilling, delivering compost, building raised beds and mowing.”
When it’s time to plant, employees help community residents by showing them techniques to grow a successful garden. What produce is grown is decided by the community; some individuals choose to grow alone, whereas others choose to grow in groups.
During harvest time, residents can keep what they have grown or share with the community. Surplus food is donated to local food pantries and used to make value-added products like jalapeno hot sauce, which is then sold at the Summit Lake Neighborhood Farmers Market. These weekly events typically include live music, arts and crafts, and even canoe rides for the kids.
This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, food from the Summit Lake Neighborhood Farmers Market started the season available for online ordering. Let’s Grow Akron began hosting the in-person market on Tuesdays in late July. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or text 300 745-9700 for weekly updates.
The Farmers Market is set up to be small, which allows more vendors access to sell their goods. Proceeds from food sales help Let’s Grow Akron continue to operate.
Growing fresh produce in food deserts
Being able to control where you get your food is important. Community gardens help to alleviate the burden of shopping for produce and help to establish sustainable food networks throughout the community.
“The gardens are designed for people to have control over their own food security. If you’re able to grow your own food, it is less expensive than buying it,” Lisa says.
Some immigrants new to Akron struggle to find food from their home countries, and the community gardens allow them to grow them. “They have the opportunity to grow vegetables that are culturally appropriate to them following dietary restrictions,” Lisa says.
Eating healthy foods, getting closer to your neighbors, and beautifying the community all help to build a communal identity. Community gardens are resources for food, but they also function as a way to reconnect ourselves to our neighbors.
“Most of us, regardless of where we live, are relying on the grocery store. We are definitely disconnected from where our food comes from,” Lisa says. “I think gardening reconnected us to where our food comes from, to the Earth, and to each other.”