Community Gardens Are Growing Across the Midwest

Community gardens across the Midwest symbolize development. As transformative spaces, they foster neighborhood engagement, increase access to healthy foods, and promote community and economic growth. Through education, youth programs and a focus on sustainability, community gardens empower future generations and play a vital role in addressing food insecurity in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cover graphic by Taylor Vanek for Midstory.

Hanging from a barn wall is a colorful wooden sign reading “Bittersweet Farms” in big, bold, red letters. Through the door of the dome-like building, the air is hot and humid, carrying a powerful aroma of herbs and spices. Vibrant colors sprout from manicured wooden crates that line the ground, encasing countless fruits and vegetables ready for harvest. A glance out the window unveils a neat row of several identical buildings. In all its hominess and intricacies, one thing becomes clear: this place took a community to build. 

Bittersweet Farms is just one of over 130 gardens served by Toledo GROWs, a community gardening organization based in Toledo, Ohio. Toledo GROWs provides local community gardens with technical expertise, materials, volunteers and educational opportunities.

Bittersweet Farms community garden. By Danny Assi for Midstory.

Shared gardens, however, trace back centuries. In 1890s Detroit, Mayor Hazen Pingree developed community gardens in urban spaces to combat an economic recession. His program provided unemployed workers with vacant city lots and the resources they needed to cultivate a garden — including instructions printed in three different languages. Dubbed “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” the community gardens were so successful that other large cities began following suit. 

Although much of the activity in the vacant lot gardens slowed by the turn of the 20th century, urban reformers in New York City, Chicago and Detroit popularized school gardens, which were especially empowering for children from low-income or immigrant families. 

During World War I, the War Garden Commission reported 3.5 million war gardens nationwide and around $350 million worth of crops; during World War II, “victory gardens” at one point supplied 40% of America’s vegetables. When the dust eventually settled, gardeners opted for privacy, and the number of community gardens dwindled once again.

In the 1960s, a surge of individuals and grassroots organizations emerged, determined to breathe new life into the nation’s neighborhoods with community gardens. Among those groups was Toledo GROWs. 

A community garden on the Bowling Green State University campus in Bowling Green, Ohio in 2019. Image courtesy of Mbrickn via Wikimedia Commons.

Bittersweet Farms emerged a couple decades later in 1983, when Toledo Public Schools special education teacher Bettye Ruth Kay established the first farmstead program for adults with autism in the United States. Originally located in Whitehouse, Ohio, the farm’s success has since led to expansion: In 2005, Bittersweet opened a location in Lima and another a year later in Pemberville. In 2006, Bittersweet Farms received recognition and funding through a $1.3 million award for 12 new residential units on their property.

Across their farms, over 100 individuals with autism receive residential, vocational, transitional and recreational services. The program’s participants and Bittersweet staff work alongside one another in partnership with the aim of fostering mutual respect and independence. Bittersweet staff establish daily schedules and task analysis sheets for participants to follow.

Two decades after Bittersweet’s establishment, Toledo GROWs began supporting Bittersweet’s Whitehouse garden with horticulturalists and gardening supplies. Yvonne Dubielak, executive director of Toledo GROWs, said many participants at Bittersweet barely spoke when they started the program, and now they’re eager to discuss the animals they care for and the plants they grow.

At many of the sites they serve, Toledo GROWs promotes independent learning, tapping into the motivations of school-based community gardens in the early 20th century.

“We have a couple of horticulturists and farmers [at Toledo GROWs] that help to teach,” Dubielak said. “But then there’s also often a lot of master gardeners here volunteering, and their role, too, is to teach. And then we have a formal education component, which is our youth education programming.”

A couple states over in Chicago, similar efforts are realizing the value of youth programming in community gardens. The Garfield Park Garden Network, located on the West Side of Chicago, enriches its community through its Youth Garden Corps, a paid summer internship program. 

Angela Taylor, one of the founders of the Garden Network and lifelong resident of Garfield Park, said that community gardening empowers youth.

“We tend to want to hire youth at risk … and we teach them about weeding, plant identification, maintenance, harvest and the operation — where they get a little customer service skill built in to assist them at the market and selling their product,” Taylor said. 

Through community gardening, Chicago teens have the opportunity to learn horticultural skills, assist with infrastructural projects, strengthen interpersonal relationships and prepare for the job market. The Garfield Park Garden Network has sustained the Youth Garden Corps for over a decade.

Once participants learn how to garden, they can then teach others, initiating a positive feedback loop. But gardening education goes beyond youth enrichment; those involved also see it as a first step toward a more sustainable society.

“We don’t use any chemicals or pesticides in our growing,” Dubielak said of Toledo GROWs. “And then we encourage things like rain gardens to help the lakes — keep the lakes clean — pollinators to feed the bees, all those kinds of things. Anything we can do to be part of that positive cycle.” 

When grown locally, produce requires less transportation from garden to home, reducing carbon emissions that are a byproduct of a massive food supply chain. Gardeners are also in greater control of what they grow, alleviating concerns about GMOs, non-organic foods and pesticides.

According to a 2022 study published by the National Library of Medicine, community gardening not only reduces food insecurity and improves dietary intake, but also strengthens the bond of a community. On the West Side of Chicago, Taylor keeps faith in the work through resident feedback.

“A couple of residents said, ‘I’m so glad you all are here — I know we’re gonna survive. If our market was able to come back and do this, we’re gonna get through this and the community will be okay,’” Taylor said.

Taylor said for some residents, their only form of social engagement is planting, harvesting, buying and selling in the gardens. According to Columbia University, community gardens also actively counteracted sudden food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Furthermore, a study published by Feeding America reported that roughly one in seven Americans, including one in five children, may have experienced food insecurity in 2020 — a 10 million person increase from 2019. 

“If there was a community garden on each block in [Chicago], and those blocks and residents work together to maintain that community garden, we can reduce hunger in our city by 50%,” Taylor said.

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