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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Grow to Give: Lessons Learned

In what was another example of the maxim that one size does not fit all in terms of community garden policies, the Staten Island Grow to Give Conference for Community Gardens and Food Pantries highlighted how different the reality of community gardening is on Staten Island compared to the rest of New York City. This conference was held at the St. John's University Staten Island Campus with 64 people braving a minor snow storm to attend.

I was part of the planning committee and one of the lead organizers of the conference. The conference grew out of the Staten Island Hunger Task Force, where the task force group wanted to start more community gardens on Staten Island to grow more fresh fruit and vegetables for the island's food pantries. The task force members decided that a conference that brought together community gardeners, food pantry organizers and volunteer groups could be the catalyst to create more gardens on Staten Island and to link both the existing gardens and new ones to food pantries. There was also the need to address logistics for even the most basic need as getting the produce from the gardens to the pantries.

Originally we thought there were only 2 community gardens on Staten Island but through outreach for the conference that number reached 8. and around 30 food pantries.  Staten Island has the smallest population of New York City's 5 boroughs with just over 500,000 residents. One very active garden the Staten Island Moravian garden  actually was a perfect example of what the conference organizers wanted to see, a garden that donates produce to a local food pantry, Project Hospitality. Another community garden, the Roots of Peace Community garden, that started just last summer was on private land but received technical support from the Staten Island office of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. A little research by the director of the New York City municipal community gardening program, GreenThumb, revealed that there was only 1 vacant lot under the jurisdiction of the Housing Preservation and Development city agency (HPD) which was the source of most of the vacant lots that developed into community gardens in the other 4 boroughs of New York City. In comparison Brooklyn has 900 HPD lots. So any future gardens would have to be created on other vacant or underutilized land.

As the Castleton Hill Moravian Church showed, one possibility is church land. There are over 100 churches on Staten Island, many with underutilized land and some with food pantries. Despite the lack of city owned vacant land, there are many privately owned vacant lots as in the case of the Roots of Peace community garden and 2 others that were identified as community gardens on private property. Some of the new community gardens could be built on church or private land. Staten Island also boasts over 12,300 acres of protected parkland including federal, state and city parks. In fact one of Staten Island's community gardens is in Miller Field in Gateway National Recreation Area. Some of these acres parkland are underutilized land that could be turned into community gardens.

Volunteer  and other groups that could provide manpower were represented by groups like the Girl Scouts, Morgan Stanley and youth probation department.

This conference gave Staten Islanders a better picture of what community gardens exist today and how to get involved, how to start new gardens, where to look for land to start new gardens, how to connect to food pantries and what groups might provide helping hands. It also showed those of us who are concerned about community garden policies that even in a particular city, one policy does not fit all possible scenarios.