This topic has been following me, not so much haunting me but regularly tapping me on the shoulder at dinner parties and conferences and coffee with friends. 

We do not grow food or even for the most part, allow residents of low income housing to grow food. 

“They won’t do it.  If it’s not fat and sugar and salt, they won’t eat it”, say my neighbors…an acupuncturist and a nurse. They see the up close results of how many of our low income…and not so low income…families eat, in America.  Processed, fattening, no nutrients, food dyes. 

 I don’t subscribe to the idea that people will do that which is in the best interest of themselves and their families.   Look around.  So I don’t think that healthier food will be the reason that people participate in food growing at an apartment community. 

 But growing fruits and vegetables in low income housing is not only about eating healthier food and providing healthier food for our children, but it is about having a reason to walk out your door.  It is about that meditative state of pulling weeds and working in silence.  It is about chatting with your neighbor and offering a taste of a sweet cherry tomato or a seeing a child’s face light up when she tastes that just picked sweet raspberry.  It is about constantly learning new things and problem solving which wakes up the brain.  “Let’s try this kind of seed.”  Maybe if we mound it like this.”   It’s about sharing. “ I have some extra bean seeds, would you like them?” 

We have over 50 million people in our country that have a hunger problem.  And what I’ve recently learned is that a hunger problem in the US means poor nourishment.  Poor nourishment manifests itself in physiological problems:  diabetes, hypertension, ADD .  Our country’s poor or low income buy the food that they can afford, that fills them up.  I remember walking into people’s apartment units and seeing the same scene in the kitchen repeated from home to home.  The poorest quality food filled their cupboards…High fat and salt, lots of food dyes, low nutritional value.  Box macaroni and cheese that you can get for $0.50 a box, sugar drinks.  Not a fruit or vegetable to be found.  The children were living on this.  It’s no wonder that most of them claimed to have ADD or ADHD.  Other than school lunch, they weren’t getting food with any nutritional value and their bodies and brains were trying to grow and develop without the proper fuel. 

When you are on food stamps, you have a very limited amount of money you can spend each month…so you have to do your best to make the food you purchase last for the whole month.  (Think about it.  You probably did the same if you were unemployed this year or concerned for your job security.  Did your grocery purchasing change a bit?)  You buy the cheapest and most filling products.  These also happen to be the ones with little or no nutritional value.  And because our food has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, a cycle has started.  The poor are now cycling through generations where the young parent, who grew up on low nutrition, poor quality, processed foods are now feeding  their children on food stamps from a grocery store that offers them these low cost options.  Do I spend $2.50 on a red pepper or some broccoli…or for that same $2.50 I could get 5 boxes of macaroni and cheese or 5 cans of condensed soup or an 8 pack of ramen noodles.  Today’s low income children are barely even tasting vegetables as children…so they only know the sweet and salty processed food.

And when children do not get nutritious food while they are growing, their brains suffer most of all.  They are not able to concentrate and the rest is downhill from there.  They are not able to keep up with their peers academically.  They have behavioral problems… sitting still, focusing, moody, tired.

So bringing food growing into low income apartment communities is not about trying to create new jobs or income for residents that grow and could sell the produce.  That is making it do too much.  There is a  much more immediate problem…poor nourishment.  Hunger. 

The opportunity to produce your own healthy food should be afforded to residents in low income apartment housing.  A huge proportion of this housing has land that is planted with grass and other plants for “curb appeal”.  The property pays thousands of dollars each month to a landscaping company to weed, mow, trim, prune and even plant flowers. 

But residents that try to take over some of the dirt outside their patios or grow vegetables in pots on their patios are disciplined.  They get a notice to comply or move out.  Not because the property manager is mean, but because the landscaper sprays pesticides/herbicides and cannot keep it off the patio plants.  And because the rule in multifamily management is keep everything visually the same.  When people even put things on their patios, it looks junky.  There is this desire for uniformity.  Gardening is anything but uniformity. 

I went to a site that was made up of two separate apartment communities but they happen to be right next to each other.  The larger one was off the main road and it housed the manager and the office.  The smaller complex was up on the hill behind the first.  You could either climb up some pathways on a relatively steep hill for walking or you had to get in your car and get there via back streets.  You could see the back of the complex from the one below. 

The manager was an older woman that had been there for years.  And she kept the place in pretty good shape.  The lawns were always mowed, no trash lying around and there were always lots of flowers planted in front of her office.  She had had some pretty big things happen in her life over the last two years and had been distracted.  In addition, she had hurt her leg and could not walk very far without pain.  But because she lived in a unit at the lower complex and worked in the office…perhaps a 25 yard walk to work…she didn’t complain. 

What was happening, or not happening, was that she had stopped walking up to the apartment on the hill in the back.  It was an elderly building so it was usually pretty quiet.  There was nothing pressing forcing her to climb up that hill.  And she could see it from below.  The landscapers were mowing and it looked fine from the vantage point of the apartments below.  Weeks turned to months and months turned into more than a year…she didn’t walk up there. 

When I arrived and asked for a tour, we hiked up the hill to the apartments in the back.  I was delighted.  She was horrified.  The elderly residents had taken over every square foot of dirt and patio space for gardening.  There were at least a hundred pots lining the walkways and clustered outside their front doors and on the balconies.  They had put small fences around their patio areas and began creeping into the lawn with small gardens.  Someone must have found an old greenhouse because they now had one!  And it was full of seedlings. 

The property manager looked like she wanted to explode and disappear at the same time.  She was so embarrassed at her obvious lack of oversight that she was ready to take it out on the residents with a full force clean up and threatening letters and notices of rule violations. She kept apologizing for how bad it looked.  I could only grin.  I thought it was beautiful.

It was beautiful because I knew people were taking care of themselves.  They were coming out of their apartments and gardening.  They were sharing seeds and seedlings and tools.  They were sharing their harvests.  They were talking with each other.  They had built a quiet little community out of sneaky gardening….that grew while no one else was paying attention.

They are different.  They stand out a little or a lot.  They may be “eccentric”.  Or they may have some mental challenges that cause them to always be way outside the “normal” box. 

When I was a kid, we had Mr. Bender who always wore a bowler hat and was seen regularly being dragged down the street in our town by his huge german shephard.  He always tipped his hat at ladies and mumbled some jibberish that could only be interpreted as suggestive.  You could also catch glimpses of him in other towns, without his dog, attempting to get a ride back home by shuffle dancing around, bowing, waving and tipping his hat while hitchhiking.  I suppose someone from our neighborhood would drive him there and drop him off.  I think he was mostly alone.  I don’t remember seeing him much with other people…other than when he got a ride.  We had a few other characters, but most were not as colorful as Mr. Bender.  It was a small town. 

Living in an urban neighborhood as an adult, we have plenty of characters.  “Running lady” who always wears braided pigtails, bright red lipstick and runs to the bus stop as well as home from the bus stop…not because she’s late for something.  It’s just what her body or mind tells her to do.  “Yelling guy” who rides a bike in cowboy boots and yells at imaginary people.  The old guy in the dark grey suit and fuzzy grey white hair and beard that shuffles around mumbling.  These are the characters that really stand out. 

But there are others that you may not think of as characters.  The guy with the tattooed head who could always be spotted pushing a double stroller.  The cyclist that rides to and from work each day pulling his dog behind him in a laundry basket on a trailer.  The neighbor that is always organizing stuff, attending neighborhood meetings or passing out fliers.  The super friendly clerk at the game store or the owner of the BBQ joint with the distinctive voice that stands in the doorway and talks to everyone. 

These people are filling an important role in a community.  They add to its identity.  They create common experiences and knowledge that can shared by members of the community.  “You know the yelling guy?”  “Yes!  He rides by our house all the time!” 

They enrich our daily experience while we are moving through our day and along our familiar paths to work, to school, to the store.  Our communities are not only the buildings, streets, and parks that create the spaces we occupy but the people that create the energy and the color of our experience.    Without them, our experience might not be as colorful.

I have to say, they all make me smile.  Some make me sad.  On any given day I can be reminded of the fragility of the human brain.  I can appreciate their creativity and ingenuity.  I can be fed by their friendliness.  I can admire their authenticity.  I appreciate that range of emotions they spur in me.

I had a sister with Down’s Syndrome that died when she was only three.  But I think of her.  And I think that had she lived to be a somewhat independent adult, I would have wanted her to live in a community where she could walk to stores to get what she needed and ride the bus.  But most importantly, I would have wanted her to live somewhere where people would know her, recognize her and say hello to her.  She may have been a neighborhood character, because she would have been noticeably different and I imagine she would probably have been very social and said hello to everyone. 

I appreciate that my children get to experience this with me.  They have grown up knowing that there are SO many different kinds of people…no one is weird just because they do things differently.  It’s ok to be just who you are.  I am so thankful for that gift. 

One of the underlying reasons a community has or does not have characters is housing.  If a community has all different kinds of housing options… large, small, affordable, not so affordable, condos, single family, apartments, group options, rooms for rent, or ‘mother in law’ apartments …a wider variety  of people can live there.  A mix of uses is another key.  Shops, restaurants, library, post office, bus stops, grocery stores, services within walking distance can support a wider variety of people…with and without cars.  A walkable, mixed use neighborhood is not just a trendy idea for coffee shops and sidewalk cafes.   This gets people out into the world.  Young and old, rich and poor, able and disabled… Otherwise, we wouldn’t experience each other. 

And we wouldn’t experience our neighborhood characters.  They would be in cars.  Or somewhere else.

I would love to hear about the characters in your community!