‘If All the Stores Close, We Need Food’: Community Gardens Adapt to the Pandemic

Around the United States, local growing operations are offering fresh produce and socially distanced outdoor time.

At Tehuti Ma’at Community Garden in Brooklyn, Travis Basora, left, Amos Amorin and Adeija Jones all came in to make sure the space was opened for the season on April 4.
Credit...John Taggart for The New York Times

The first Saturday in April was still opening day for Tehuti Ma’at Community Garden in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, even with the stay-at-home order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Working under a sky the color of blue cotton candy, Travis Basora, Amos Amorin and Adeija Jones were cleaning up around the wooden beds filled with flowering winter greens and the apple tree, its branches tipped with pale pink flower buds.

“Yes, there’s a pandemic, but we’re still here, we’re still working,” said Mr. Basora, 22, the acting manager of the garden, planted on an empty corner lot in the historic African-American neighborhood community once known as Weeksville.

“It’s our first day, we’re still figuring it out,” he said, putting a gloved hand on his hip. “We’re keeping people active.”

Tehuti Ma’at Community Garden is one of 553 gardens under the NYC Parks program called GreenThumb, all of which the city closed on March 21 to anyone but members working on necessary maintenance. “We need to do it responsibly, I understand that,” Mr. Basora said, adding that their garden model relied on walk-in volunteer labor in order to distribute produce to the community. That’s why he wanted to keep the garden “come as you wish.”

Credit...John Taggart for The New York Times

“If all the stores close, we need food — we have a lot of conversations about being self-sustaining here,” he said, adding that people in this part of Brooklyn also just need a place to hang out in the sun.

Across the country, community gardeners like Mr. Basora are figuring out how to do their work during a pandemic: How do you run a place where strangers share gloves and hand tools, then tote home soil-stained spinach to feed raw to their loved ones? How do you sow seeds when you can’t easily buy them, or have a vulnerable immune system and have been advised not to leave your home?

Ms. Jones, 22, was visiting Mr. Basora from the Phoenix Community Garden about a mile away in Ocean Hill, where members were already harvesting chickweed and chocolate fennel fronds. One of the bigger, more professionally run gardens in New York City — with a compost toilet, an apprenticing program and a summer farm stand where the gardeners sell their own crops — it came up with its own extensive Covid-19 gardening procedures nearly a month ago.

The group now hosts meetings on Zoom, uses spreadsheets to ensure that no more than five gardeners at a time show up to work and wipes down wheelbarrow handles with a bleach solution. They have shifted from teaching to growing as much as possible. One longtime member, Bernadette Mitchell, 56, has even changed her role from weekend tour guide to “social distancing director.”

Credit...John Taggart for The New York Times

These were also among the issues Hannah Traggis, a member of Wareham Community Garden, in southeastern Massachusetts, was mulling over in early March, even before her state closed nonessential businesses. As a plant physiologist with laboratory training, Ms. Traggis, 48, said, “my gut instinct was to close it for a few weeks until we knew what was going on.”

But when she posted that plan to a couple of listservs that focus on food and farming, she was inundated with emails arguing against it, listing everything from the importance of fresh food access for lower-income populations to the restorative properties of putting hands in soil.

So instead of closing the garden — on land donated by one of region’s largest Ocean Spray cranberry growers Ms. Traggis decided to start compiling pandemic advice for community gardeners into publicly shared documents she updates almost daily. (It includes science-based updates on the virus and tips on how to harvest, share tools, swap seeds and manage work flow — information also available on Wareham Community Garden’s blog.)

Gardens, Ms. Traggis said, are “so crucially important to people, and if they can also raise some food that saves at least one trip to the grocery store? I love to think it can be a reality.”

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Marguerite Green, the executive director of a New Orleans nonprofit group called Sprout Nola, is preparing for the day gardens have to replace grocery stores altogether. “I’m worried we won’t be able to get fresh food other than locally,” said Ms. Green, 31, who has seen food scarcity before.

She was a senior in high school when Hurricane Katrina shut down her city in 2005, and recalls weeks of eating nothing but M.R.E.s, the instant meals prepared for the military. Ms. Green went on to get a degree in vegetable production before joining Sprout Nola, which runs its own community garden and helps support several others.

“I didn’t want to be in that position again,” said Ms. Green, who put together a series of plans within days of Louisiana’s shelter-in-place rule on March 12, which also shuttered farmers’ markets.

In addition to adding safety and sanitation rules and digital potlucks at their own garden — where eggplant, tomatoes, okra and peppers are already in season — her organization is distributing boxes of food to members who can’t leave their homes, or gardening for them. It is also working to grow more food, by putting in plants at two abandoned city gardens and tapping skilled gardeners to raise seedlings at home to be sent to a spreadsheet of people who have requested them.

Credit...Cedric Angeles for The New York Times

“This is actually why we build community,” Ms. Green said. “It’s to take care of each other in times of need.”

The executive director of Denver Urban Gardens had similar instincts after her city enacted its stay-at-home order.

Initially our first staff meeting was, ‘What do we do? Do we feed people today? Do we pivot completely to become a food pantry?’ ” said Violeta García, 39, whose organization supports 188 gardens around the region, including several on public-school property that they had to fight to reopen.

They decided to work on a 10-step safety list and a public online education platform, and to distribute 1,000 “to grow” boxes filled with gardening supplies to new growers, in addition to the seeds and seedlings they were already providing to 1,400 garden groups and families. They will give them out again in the fall, Ms. García said, and if the recipients don’t have a place to plant, they’ll match them with an empty plot in one of their gardens.

“This is not just for fun, this is because it’s essential for people’s lives,” said Ms. García, who added that most of their gardens were in “underserved” neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic by several measures, including health, access to enough food and job losses.

At Our Neighbors Farm & Pantry in the small desert city of Safford, Ariz., a one-acre community-run garden already grows for the organization’s food pantry year-round, said Stacey Scarce, the executive director. In the past week, visits to the farm for its harvest-your-own program are up — though part-time staff now has to do the harvesting — and trips to the pantry have increased by 20 or more people a day, she said.

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Abby Bell has noticed a similar trend in San Francisco, where she manages Alemany Farm, a vast, serene community garden on city parkland. More people, Ms. Bell said, are stopping in to pick-their-own — they just have to stay six feet apart and follow other posted safety rules — and she sees increased need from the food pantry in the neighboring Alemany Public Housing community.

The garden produced 25,000 pounds of produce last year, said Ms. Bell, 38, who when reached on the garden’s phone line was harvesting cabbage as birds called in the background.

Credit...Peter Prato for The New York Times

Though she hopes a silver lining is more awareness of the need for gardens like hers, she worries about keeping up with increased demand now that the garden is closed to the public on volunteer days. It used to get 60 people working per weekend, Ms. Bell said, and the city has also cut park staff members’ hours.

Worry and hope are also the two emotions shared by Karen Washington, who in 1988 helped found the Garden of Happiness, in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx, which now keeps chickens and helps run a seasonal farmers’ market with four nearby gardens.

“At the end of the day who’s going to suffer the most?” she said. Ms. Washington, 66, was referring to poorer neighborhoods like her own, where her fellow gardeners are both scared and still busy working overtime at jobs delivering food or serving as home health aides.

Like Ms. Bell, she hopes the pandemic exposes the larger needs that led to building her garden in the first place. In the meantime, Ms. Washington is preparing seedlings for neighbors so they’ll be there when they need them.

“We’re going to have to take care of ourselves,” Ms. Washington said, “so we are going to get ready.”