November 30, 2016

These neighbors tore up their lawns and planted crops instead

Now they're reaping more than they sowed: 'We’re growing community on our block'

The author and his neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska, replaced their grass with gardens, and now they produce lettuce, potatoes, peppers, and berries that they can all enjoy. Photo courtesy of the Hawley Hamlet Facebook page

There are lots of reasons for including local food in your diet and lifestyle.

Taste, for one. There’s nothing better than freshly harvested vegetables and fruits from your own garden (or, next best, grown by a local farmer). The fresher the ingredients the better—and that’s true whether you’re cooking a meal at home, or seated at a restaurant paying for the pleasure of a fine dining experience.

Then there’s health. Perishable food items like fresh produce start losing nutrition as soon as they’re picked. With more than 70 percent of the lettuce we buy at the supermarket shipped in from California, what passes for “fresh” spent two to three days on a truck before landing on the shelf. By definition, locally grown is fresher and can’t help but be more nutritious.

What’s good for your personal health is also good for your community’s prosperity. If you’re growing your own produce, you’re saving money on your food budget. And if you’re buying from a local farmer, you’re keeping those food dollars percolating through your local economy.

And don’t forget about environmental stewardship. Any time we can reduce our carbon footprint by producing locally what otherwise might require tons of transportation and packaging costs, we’re conserving resources and protecting the ecosystem we all depend on to live. We all have to eat, but how we go about it makes a marked difference.

These are all really good reasons for growing and eating local food, and, on one level or the other, I’ve dabbled in doing them most of my adult life. But what got me doing more than just pushing a cart down the grocery store aisle was my growing concern over our food security. Local food, it turns out, is more “secure” since it’s nearer to home, nearer to where we actually eat.

We live in a global food system today. If we can afford to pay for it, we can live in Bismarck, North Dakota, and have watermelon balls and fresh pineapple on New Year’s Eve, and fresh tomatoes and green pepper slices on New Year’s Day. We’ve become so accustomed to going to the store and buying these out-of-season foods any time we want that we don’t even stop to wonder where they came from and how they got there.

The scope, ingenuity, and logistical coordination of this global food system is breathtaking. It’s given us an array of food choices never before seen in world history—because we do indeed “eat” from the world. The average bite of food on our plate (and in our fast food wrapper) travels nearly 2,000 miles to get there, with almost a fifth of that food imported from outside the country.

But the global nature of this supply chain also makes it very fragile. As your typical supermarket stocks just three days of inventory from this global system, any calamity disrupting that tenuous supply chain and those grocery shelves go bare. And as everyone from the scientific community to the Pentagon to Nestlé (the world’s largest food company) is now warning, climate change poses a direct threat to the security of our food supply. Hotter temperatures, droughts, flash floods, and wild fires will all make food-growing more difficult. Food shortages, these experts caution, are in our future.

This is what got me, in my mid-50s, to tear up my lawn, convert my yard to an “edible landscape” and start growing food in my corner of Lincoln, Nebraska. And it’s what got me to collaborate with my neighbors in carving out two-thirds of an acre of garden space on our block. Twenty households are now gardening the equivalent of 65 yards of a football field on a standard two-acre block with no vacant lots.

Slowly but surely, we’re getting to know each other, putting a name to a face, swapping a story or two, sharing the surplus harvest, and actually feeling like a neighborhood.

About 20 households have turned their lawns into gardens. Photo courtesy of the Hawley Hamlet Facebook page

Where there had just been inedible grass that needed to be endlessly watered and mowed, we’ve now got food growing. Not enough to feed ourselves on, of course, but enough lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and squash to keep us from having to run to the Farmers Market, let alone the grocery store.

More than food, we’re growing community on our block. And learning a lot. As city dwellers, we now have a better idea, for instance, of how much work goes into growing food and what it takes to get it to the table. Having just been “eaters” most of our lives, we’re trying our hands at growing what can be grown in the city to help supplement our food supply.

Slowly but surely, we’re getting to know each other, putting a name to a face, swapping a story or two, sharing the surplus harvest, and actually feeling like a neighborhood. We’re creating what we’ve taken to calling the “The Hamlet”—nothing official, just a cluster of homes on one city block where we all happen to live.

And having a hamlet, where we greet the neighbors, watch out for the kids, and are gardening nearly everywhere you turn, feels a lot more secure in every sense of the word, and a lot more “homey.”

It ain’t perfect by any stretch, but there isn’t a one of us who’d rather go back to the way it was before, when hardly anybody knew each other, lawns were all there were, and everyone got all of their food from the store.

Tim Rinne

Nebraska native Tim Rinne is a co-founder of the Hawley Hamlet, located in Lincoln's city core just 12 blocks from downtown. A member of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Food Policy Council, he dreams of one day seeing food gardens all over our city landscapes.
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