Edible Communities: Institutionalizing the Lawn-to-Garden Movement to Promote Food Independence for Low-income Families

Author:Chelsea Tu
Position:J.D. candidate, May 2013, at American University Washington College of Law
by Chelsea Tu*
The concept of building local food systems for low-income
communities has gained impressive momentum as part of
the U.S. sustainability movement.1 Local food systems help
reduce environmental impacts from production to plate, increase avail-
ability and access to cheaper fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved
communities, lower rates of obesity and diet-related diseases, and elim-
inate food deserts.2 Notable existing local food initiatives serving low-
income individuals include building grocery stores and community
gardens in food deserts,3 and promoting the use of Supplemental Nutri-
tion Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to purchase fresh produce4
as well as seeds and food-bearing plants.5 The local food movement
arose in response to overarching political support for large-scale com-
mercial agriculture at the federal and state levels, which still dominates
the national food system.6 Beyond this, particular challenges for institu-
tionalizing innovative food initiatives for low-income residents include
a lack of sustained funding, zoning restrictions, insufficient training and
institutional support, as well as locating and converting productive land
in urban and suburban areas.7 Thus, despite the positive impact of local
food systems, 14.9 % of U.S. households were still food insecure in
2011.8 Establishing lawn-to-garden programs for low-income individu-
als can solve land availability and conversion issues while achieving
all of the health and environmental benefits local food initiatives bring.
The lawn-to-garden concept is not novel. During World War II more
than twenty million “victory gardens” were planted on residential lawns
and community plots across the country,9 yielding an estimated nine to
ten million tons of fruits and vegetables.10 However, these gardens disap-
peared when improved and cheaper technologies led to a shift in federal
food policy that encouraged large-scale commercial farming.11 The lawn
reverted back to its decorative role,12 and the lawn-to-garden concept was
all but abandoned until 2009 when Michelle Obama converted the White
House South Lawn to a 1,110-square-foot vegetable garden.13
The case for converting lawns to gardens is simple: edible gar-
dens will help alleviate the energy and health crises.14 Lawn-to-garden
initiatives make use of productive agricultural space in residential
yards and reduce input of fossil fuels and toxic products to maintain
green carpets.15 This makes sense in low-income communities where
many residents may not have sufficient income or time to maintain
manicured lawns. The lawn-to-garden model also reduces reliance on
processed foods that travel thousands of miles to consumers while
increasing access to locally grown fresh foods.16 In effect, edible
communities will better connect people, food, and the environment.17
Lawn-to-garden initiatives could be customized according to the
size of available land, the number of participants, and the type of opera-
tion that participants desire. Similar to community garden projects and
school farms,18 low-income single-unit homes and multi-unit afford-
able housing complexes could convert available lawn space to gardens
where participating residents could grow what they wish or delegate
gardening responsibilities in order to operate as a cooperative.19
Low-income individuals could also farm on someone else’s yard.20
Low-income individuals could become “agri-preneurs” and sell their
produce directly to neighbors, farmer’s markets, and other outlets.21
The creation and institutionalization of lawns-to-gardens must over-
come legal, pecuniary, institutional support, and cultural hurdles. Most
urban and suburban municipal zoning laws limit commercial agricultural
areas to certain parts of town.22 Residential zones typically do not allow for
commercial gardens.23 However, some municipalities, such as Seattle, have
adjusted their zoning laws to promote growing and selling fresh produce in
residential areas.24 Another promising method for institutionalizing edible
communities is incorporating them into municipal sustainability plans.25
Like any farm, a successful lawn-to-garden may require sustained
funding to retain full-time staff and to purchase seed, fertilizer, and equip-
ment. This is especially relevant in the low-income context as economi-
cally disadvantaged individuals are unlikely to have sufficient time and
money to maintain lawn-converted gardens. However, an increasing
number of private investors,26 local programs, and federal programs27
provide local food project funding targeting underserved communities.
There is also no paucity of knowledgeable gardeners themselves, as evi-
denced by AmeriCorps’ recent launch of the Food Corps program where
over one thousand applicants competed for fifty openings in 2011.28 The
number of agri-preneurs is also rising, notably in marginalized popula-
tions of Latinos and veterans.29 Once participants convert lawns to gar-
dens and establish local marketing outlets, this community of gardens has
the potential to generate both food and income,30 allowing underserved
communities to be both food-secure and food-independent.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to institutionalizing lawn-to-garden
initiatives is Americans’ longstanding belief that lawns promote the
attractiveness and marketability of their property.31 Additionally, low-
income residents may perceive gardening as a luxury and not a means of
sustenance.32 These “perception gaps” can be overcome with grassroots
support from programs like Food Corps, as well as education and media
campaigns modeled on the success of the local foods revolution.33 The
objective should be to educate the public about the functional beauty of
gardens and the potential avenues for entrepreneurship they create.
In addition to increasing the number of backyard gardens that many
Americans have, we should look to expand gardens to front yard and
courtyard gardens. Providing low-income communities easy access to
fresh produce by converting lawns to gardens will connect urbanites and
suburbanites to their food, improve environmental and human health, and
increase community pride.34 Lawns-to-gardens will give us the opportu-
nity to show off the fruits of our labor, enjoy them ourselves, give them
to our neighbors, and even sell them for profit. Lawn-to-garden initiatives
can be a part of the local food system revolution that seeks to create food
independent, healthy communities for millions of Americans.
*Chelsea Tu is a J.D. candidate, May 2013, at American University Washington
College of Law. continued on page 66