Community building through farming can manifest in a variety of ways, be it forging new relationships between disparate groups of people, creating a safe environment and common ground, or reconnecting people to the earth. Sustainable agriculture projects often provide a unique forum for social integration. Several projects in various parts of the U.S. are particularly inspiring, and demonstrate without doubt that these farms aren’t just growing sustainable food; they’re growing community.
One of the most striking examples of sustainable agriculture fostering community has been taking place in a California prison since the early 1990s. The Garden Project in the San Francisco Bay area engages prisoners in growing produce for area markets and charity. Prisoners are given a greater sense of purpose and have the opportunity to learn all aspects of running a farm, from planting and maintenance to business skills. Through farming, the prisoners not only form a healthier community among themselves but also have the chance to reconnect with the outside community. By donating the food they grow to local seniors and low-income residents, prisoners make a positive connection with the greater community. Studies have shown that the prisoners involved in this project are less likely to return to jail than most, and leave the prison with more marketable skills.
In recent years, more new American farming projects have cropped up around the country, which help to integrate refugees and immigrants into their resettlement communities. Through initiatives like the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project in Maine, refugees and immigrants can learn how to farm in a new climate and environment and connect with a new land, as well as how to market and sell their produce at farmer’s markets and local businesses. For many new Americans who come from agricultural backgrounds, farming is a comfortable way of getting plugged in to a culturally foreign community and feel more independent and at home.
Garden projects have also been used as a way to reintegrate disenfranchised, homeless youth into a supportive community. Programs like Seattle’s Youth Garden Works help develop job and life skills, offer employment opportunities, and provide consistency for youth living on the streets. The kids are also involved in community service and food security awareness, endowing them with a greater sense of social responsibility and a connection to the larger community. This model of garden-based education is nurturing and productive, tangibly and sustainably helping kids to succeed when the odds are against them.
As these few examples indicate, healthy communities grow out of and can be supported by sustainable farming projects in all kinds of unexpected scenarios. Farming and the sharing of the food it produces can be an effective way to build or rebuild communities, linking people together in meaningful ways.