How guerilla gardening helps solve food deserts

If you drive though Los Angeles, you'll see the scenery change from block to block, sometimes from house to house as if there is some invisible border. I've driven along streets where one half of the street was maintained and in perfect condition courtesy of Beverly Hills' spending. The other side of the road belonged to the city of LA and there were more pot holes than intact stretches of road. You should know that Beverly Hills might be in Los Angeles but, like Santa Monica, it isn't actually part of Los Angeles city but it's own municipality, so they have their own budget independent of the city of Los Angeles.

I have lived in three apartments in LA and visited quite a few more. Our first apartment was in the middle of a pretty shitty part of LA called Mid City, home of the Mid City Stoners, a Mexican-American street gang. You could walk a block in any direction and the conditions would get better. Despite frequent visits from the police, especially to the apartment building across the street from us where they were supposedly cooking meth and partaking in various drugs, I felt quite safe there. I walked the dog alone even when it was dark. My neighbors greeted me, waved hands, smiled. On most days, I lived in a very normal neighborhood. On other days, the police blocked off the neighborhood or you'd hear gun shots at night. It wasn't a good neighborhood but it was still a far way from how bad it could have been, even in the same city.

When I listened to Ron Finley's talk about Food Deserts and heard him joke about how the city of Los Angeles had tried to solve what's wrong with South Central by renaming it, I laughed along with the audience. But I also remembered what it was like to drive through those parts of the city. Even in our shitty neighborhood, we had a large grocery store nearby. Sure, there was the typical fast food, vacant lots, and liquor stores, but there was also a Ralph's.

When he said "Like 26.5 million Americans, I live in a food desert," I didn't really think about what that meant. Is that a lot? Hold on, how many people live in the US? Later, I started doing some research and this post has been in the making since.

For those of you equally bad with geography and stats like population size, the US has about 330 million people. I currently live in Germany alongside about 80 million other people. I think it's 83 by now. So, 26.5 million Americans live in a food desert.

But what's a food desert? A food desert is a place where the people who live there have no good options for getting healthy, affordable groceries like fruit and vegetables. As someone who eats a primarily plant-based diet and as few processed food items as possible, I can't even imagine what it is like to live in a place like that.

So, 26.5 million Americans don't have reasonable access to healthy food. That's about 8 percent. I am aware you know what percent are, but just to get the point across: 8 out of 100 people in the US have a hard time getting an apple or some broccoli.

And things are even worse than that already sounds. It is assumed that there are even more food deserts, as statistics are a bit off here. According to the NAICS, the North American Industrial Classification System, small corner stores count as grocery stores, so if one of those tiny stores which primarily sells packaged items is in the area, you don't officially live in a food desert but you'll likely still have a hard time finding fresh fruit or vegetable anywhere nearby.

In one of my videos, I said that we have a giant amount of overfed and undernourished people. Food deserts are part of the problem. Yes, there are many other problems, some of which I have talked about before like how good companies are at advertising processed foods and how our modern lifestyle makes their convenience almost necessary. I'm sure we'll get more into these topics in the future.

But who can blame a single mother for feeding her children frozen pizza if it's not only cheaper than fresh fruit and vegetable but also much easier to get. If you are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, driving ten miles to the next real grocery store, then cooking a healthy dinner becomes prohibitive.

There are 2.5 times as many fast-food restaurants in the poorest regions than in the wealthiest areas. And it's a self-perpetuating loop. If you don't have access to fresh produce, you buy fast-food and frozen pizza. If you buy fast-food and frozen pizza, the statistics for your neighborhood say that people their buy said products much more than produce. So, why would a grocery store chain think about opening a store there. Their research says that it's not worth it. That might be a false assumption based on skewed date, but it is still the basis for their decisions.

So, with every frozen pizza, we are making it less likely that those areas are getting access to fresh food. And this is yet another topic where racism and segregation come into the mix. These food deserts are much more likely to be in areas with a high percentage of minority residents.

And to make matters worse, prices are usually much lower in the larger chain stores than in smaller corner stores, so those who can least afford to overpay for food are more likely to do so.

So, what can we do?

First, let's get back to that bad-ass Ron Finley I talked about earlier. I definitely suggest you watch his TED talk, as he does a much better job at talking about his project than I can, but here's the cliff notes: when he saw how unhealthy his neighborhood had become, he realized that food is both the problem and the solution. He took the initiative and started planting the green strip outside his house. He grew a little food forest there that wasn't just a lot more beautiful than the patch of dying grass that had been there before, but also provided him with fresh produce. Little did he know that what he did was actually against the rules. Said patch of grass might be the responsibility of the person the house belongs to but it is still property of the city. And while he knew that, he thought that he had free rein as to what to do with said patch of heat-plagued grass.

I assume someone didn't like the beautiful little garden and complained to the city. The city sent Ron a citation and asked him to remove the garden. They even threatened him with a warrant. Yes, a warrant for planting food. I know that technically that's not what this is about, but it is still the reality. Luckily, Ron didn't cave and fought for his little garden.

photo by Ron Finley

He managed to get the story to the attention of some local news outlets including the LA times and thanks to a 900-signature petition on, he was allowed to keep his garden.

And he didn't stop there. He has helped plant many gardens in the city. He has planted gardens at homeless shelters with help from the homeless. He has planted gardens with children. He has planted and planted and planted. And I love every second of this. If one dude with a shovel can leave such a huge mark on the people he interacts with, on their mental and physical health, what can we do if we work together?

Los Angeles has about 20 Central Parks worth of vacant lots owned by the city. If there are 26 square miles of empty lots owned by the city, I don't even want to know how much empty land there is in total. This land could be used. If someone wants to build a house or building there, getting rid of the garden isn't hard. So why not use all that empty space until a better use for that land comes along? And honestly, with the amount of empty luxury apartments and office buildings in LA, I assume it would be a long time before a better use comes along. But the fact that people keep insisting on adding more and more luxury apartments instead of building housing for the middle and lower class might be appalling but it's not what I want to talk about today.

Ron Finley said, "Grow your own food. Growing your own food is like printing your own money." He also explained that one dollar worth of green beans from the store can easily grow you 75 dollars worth of produce. And that's not even taking into account that you can leave some of those 75 dollars for the next harvest. It's an exponential function. One mother plant can lead to so many little baby beans.

And while I focused on Los Angeles in this video, this isn't a problem localized to Los Angeles, California, or even the US. The term might not have taken off outside the US, but the problem exists in cities and rural areas all over the world, again primarily in poorer regions and regions with a high percentage of minority residents.

My own dreams of a backyard garden this year ended in a disappointed admission that it just wasn't happening. When the landlord's agent talked to me about my plans for the patch of dirt behind the house that was supposed to be ours, he failed to mention that there was no access to water anywhere down there. So, maintaining a garden would have meant endless trips with buckets or watering cans from our second-floor apartment to the garden in the back of the house. We wanted to try anyway. We planted a couple dozen pots of produce. Most of the seeds actually sprouted and I was excited. I would finally get to check off one of my bucket list items: my own little vegetable garden. And then Northern Germany went into one of its many gray-in-gray weather periods. There was no sunshine for weeks and if the sun peaked out, it vanished again after a few minutes. All of my little baby plants died from lack of sun exposure despite being in front of the sunniest window in our apartment. Grudgingly, I gave up my dream of a garden for now. But let me tell you, I will get a chance to grow a food forest in the future. I'm determined to make it happen. But, I have also accepted that it likely won't happen in Germany. Add it to the list of things why I can't wait to get out of here again. Ah, well.

Next year, I'll get some plants on my balcony like I used to do in the past. It isn't the same as having my own garden, but it will give me the chance to get my hands in the dirt and eat some of the fruits of my own labor—more or less literally.

What Ron found when he started planting is that there is so much more to gardening than just growing plants. Kids who grow fruits and vegetables are more ready to eat fruits and vegetables. People get together, form communities, talk about their lives over a patch of dirt. And people connect to the earth while they dig their hands into the soil to harvest a tuber. I have experienced this myself. And I can't wait to be the caretaker of a small food forest in the future. Planting the unused spaces in our cities is a huge step toward a healthier and happier life for all of us.

Just think about it: Instead of giant fields outside the city destroying nature, we could grow organic food on the vacant lots, strips of grass near roads, between buildings. More planted areas in the cities would better the air quality, lower the temperatures, invite insects to inhabit the newly created living spaces. Honestly, it's a win-win-win.

If we can't convince grocery stores to go where food is needed the most, let's grow it ourselves and cut out the middle man.

As always, I'll end with the usual advice about educating yourself and others, voting whenever the polls are open, and voting with your dollar by buying the products you want to support.

Stay fucking vigilant!

Mentioned in this episode:

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand

Kate Hildenbrand is the writer behind the essays here, author of fiction novels, the creator of the Kate Hildenbrand podcast, and a student of marine ecology. At least, that's her on the surface.