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The Healing Power of a Shared Garden

One man’s quest to make his neighborhood healthy shows the power of a grass-roots social movement. Ready to start one too?

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by Janice Holly Booth

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Like 26.5 million Americans, Ron Finley lives in a food desert (defined by the USDA as communities with little or no access to healthy food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products). Like all food deserts, Finley’s neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles is marked by high levels of obesity and diabetes, thanks in part to the fast-food establishments that are the only option for meals. Finley himself was tired of driving 45 minutes round-trip to find a fresh apple, so he decided to reinvent his landscape. In the strip of grass growing along the curb in front of his house, Finley planted banana trees, vegetables and sunflowers, encouraging passers-by to enjoy the colors and help themselves to the bounty. His community garden might have stopped there. But when the city, responding to a complaint from a neighbor, slapped Finley with a citation for improper planting, Finley’s cause was born.

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A change.org petition garnered 900 signatures and the city backed off (they have since changed the ordinance against “improper planting”). Finley co-founded a group that sponsored monthly “dig-ins” where hundreds of volunteers turned neglected pieces of urban land into thriving gardens—“food forests” Finley calls them. Finley and his neighbors became “guerilla gardeners,” growing fruits and vegetables on land that is not theirs, and turning L.A.’s vacant lots and unused areas, (combined they comprise 26 square miles), into places of beauty and bounty.  By the time Finley moved on to a new project, the group had installed 27 edible gardens in South Central L.A.

 “Drive-thrus are killing more people in L.A. than drive-bys,” says Finley, who wants to nip the health crisis in the bud by getting kids fired up about growing food. “We need to flip the script,” to make gardening cool to the youngest generation. “Be a gangsta gardener,” he proclaims. “Make a shovel your weapon of choice!” The payoff? “A kid who grows kale is a kid who eats kale.”  

Finley’s simple idea has taken root all over the country. A TED talk inspired community gardens across the globe, and in the U.K. there’s a garden named in Finley’s honor. Although he’s aware of his influence, Finley doesn’t see himself as an activist. “I’m a citizen,” he says. “I grow people and they grow food. I just introduce people to the design and they see how they can then redesign their own lives. Ultimately, I want people to realize that the way you change the planet is to be self-sustaining.”

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As change-agent, Finley has inspired thousands of people to start where they are and create their own community gardens. Who inspires him, I asked. He paused for a moment before answering, “Air. Air inspires me. Truly, I wake up and say ‘dude, you got another chance to change something.’ I try to celebrate that.”

His next big transformation will be creating “an oasis of beauty” at the oldest operating library in L.A. On a piece of land behind the building, he wants to see a café built out of an old metrobus or shipping containers. He envisions a greenhouse where people can grow and sell their produce or trade with the café for credits. “I want to create a community hub where people can come and read outside and learn how to cook things.” He imagines people sharing ethnic recipes with each other. “Let people know we’re all connected through the same water, the same blood. These kinds of exchanges are what people need. Let’s have a common ground where people can share and inspire each other.” Finley believes this approach can literally change the culture of South Central. “I want the gang wars to be over who has the biggest tomato.”

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Finley’s story is a reminder that one person’s simple idea—plant gardens where there are none—can grow into a movement when others embrace the cause. We all have the power to reinvent our own landscapes, whether that’s building a community playground or feeding the homeless. Banding together for a common cause elevates the individual and the community. “Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city,” says Finley. “Plus, you get strawberries.”