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Chelsea Green Blog

The Making of the “Food Not Lawns” Movement

The following is an excerpt from Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard Into a Garden and Your Neighborhood Into a Community by Heather Flores. It has been adapted for the web.

As my personal health and eating habits improved I became convinced that food-the source of our energy and, often, the root of consumerism- was also at the core of personal and community empowerment. It is extremely difficult to build an organic life on an empty stomach. When we are well nourished with good local food, we can work hard, get along, and build beautiful, ecological communities.

Healthy food is a basic right for everyone, but geographic, social, and economic boundaries often limit or deny access, both to food itself and to the land needed to grow it. Most people I talk to want to eat healthy, organic food and live in harmony with the earth and one another, yet they don’t know how turn these ecological ethics into a real, daily lifestyle.

Often the primary problem is not supply but distribution. Through cooking with Food Not Bombs, I learned that in every city in North America, truckloads of nutritious food go to waste every day. Much of this food is organic, and diverting the flow into the mouths of community- minded people is like sending water into a dry garden: It makes everything grow and bloom.

Further, food is only one of the deep diversity of resources found in the waste stream-and recycling the waste stream is the key to longterm urban sustainability. Beyond food, shelter, clothing, building materials, plants, seeds, tools, and of course many acres of fertile soil sit idle in every town in America.

As I began to realize this, I continued to cook and serve free meals in the park but changed my focus from providing resources to teaching others how to find them on their own. The old adage still rings true: Give a person a fish and feed her for a day; teach her to fish and feed her for a lifetime.

It was with this in mind that a few of us founded Food Not Lawns, a grassroots gardening project geared toward using waste resources to grow organic gardens and encouraging others to share their space, surplus, and ideas toward the betterment of the whole community. Why Food Not Lawns? Most obviously, the name was a natural evolution from Food Not Bombs. But more importantly, we called ourselves Food Not Lawns because the more we learned about food, agriculture, and land use, the more the lawns around suburban Eugene began to reek of gross waste and mindless affluence.

While looking for a garden site, we asked our landlord to let us grow a garden in the grassy front yard of our rented house. He refused, saying he wanted to keep the lawn intact, and while I tried to see his point, to me it was absurd. In a world where so many lack access to basic needs such as food and shelter, and where a lawn of a thousand square feet could grow more than a hundred edible and beneficial plant species, becoming a lush perennial “food forest” within three years, mowed grass seems an arrogant and negligent indulgence.

We did eventually find a nice spot in an abandoned section of a local park, where we grew a diverse organic garden. We ate some of what we grew and gave the rest away. We grew starts and seeds and gave them away, and we hosted workshops in the garden space. The produce nourished us, the starts and seeds inspired gardens around the neighborhood, and the workshops helped spread the knowledge gained from our experience.

The garden flourished, and other activists in the neighborhood became intrigued. All summer long people dropped by with plants, seeds, or tools to donate, or to volunteer for an hour or three, chatting and sharing ideas within our peaceful oasis. It was so easy and so much fun, and the positive effects were exponentially obvious as the neighborhood got greener and the people got more educated about organic food and urban sustainability. Our neighbors and their gardens bloomed with an abundance of food, goodwill, and inspiration.

Food Not Lawns started several more gardens and circulated seeds, plants, and information. We planted food all over town-vegetables and fruit trees in public parks, berries along the bike path, squash down by the river-anywhere that looked like it would get water and sunshine. Over the next several years we organized dozens of events, including seed swaps, farm tours, resource exchanges, and workshops on a wide range of topics, such as natural building, composting, organic orchard care, self-education, and community organizing.

In the spring of 2000 I helped put on a weeklong community gardening festival during which a small affinity group planted a vegetable garden in a vacant lot around the corner from our house. Several months later, just before the juicy tomatoes and giant zucchini were ready to harvest, the landowner sold the lot to a developer who wanted to build an apartment complex.

The locals protested, saying there was ample vacant housing in Eugene (true). One neighbor locked himself to the bulldozer, with a sign saying SQUASH THE STATE! to prevent the garden from being destroyed, but he was arrested and the apartments were built. We lost that garden, but the event spurred a new flow of local and national interest, and ten more gardens popped up in other places around town.

Local and national media caught on, and we gave several interviews about sharing land and resources to promote peace and sustainability. Soon e-mails and letters flowed in encouraging our work, asking for more information, and telling of new chapters of Food Not Lawns in Washington, California, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. We soon connected with a global community of like-minded people-activists, some, but mostly a diversity of working-class people: healers, midwives, single moms, artists, musicians, lawyers, teachers, librarians, and plenty of organic farmers and gardeners. Apparently organic gardening with the larger goal of community sustainability appeals to people across many cultural and economic boundaries and unites activists, apathists, and many in between.

My own political views changed profoundly as the gardens taught me their lessons. I had lived and worked in a radical, anarchist/activist community for years and was inspired by finding a beautiful, positive way to manifest these philosophies. Notions of violent revolution dimmed next to visions of multicolored paradise and peaceful abundance. Dreams of industrial collapse became prayers for communities feeding and healing themselves.

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