Review: Growing a Garden City

Growing a Garden City

How Farmers, First Graders, Counselors, Troubled Teens, Foodies, a Homeless Shelter Chef, Single Mothers, and More Are Transforming Themselves and Their Neighborhoods Through the Intersection of Local Agriculture and Community–and How You Can, Too

By Jeremy N. Smith
New York: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Reviewed by Ellen Messer
Visiting Associate Professor
Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy Tufts University
Boston University Gastronomy Program


This book tells the story of Missoula, Montana’s Community Food System. A coalition of the many, as the subtitle indicates, the multiplying numbers of community gardens, good-food education efforts, and people who appreciate and demand high quality, delicious, and wholesome food, demonstrate how individuals, working together, can produce outstanding food and nutrition products and outcomes, with favorable impacts beyond the local level.

The volume is lusciously illustrated with photographs of cheery gardeners, kids chewing on farm vegetables, and chefs serving up community food-bank and soup-kitchen meals. The text, divided into three sections, describes the origins of these local food actions and food movement (“Breaking ground”), its expansion to include more and increasingly diverse participants (“Growing a Garden City”), and the connections between production and consumption that involve everyone from the youngest students visiting the farm, and harvesting then consuming their first “home-grown” carrots and kale, to the rebellious teenager assigned to do “farming as therapy,” the college students who work on the farm to hone sustainable agriculture skills, the seniors and single mother who delight in the gardeners’ products and largesse, and the community servers, food bankers, and outreach folks who make sure that the highest quality food will be available to the lowest income people who need it (“The New Faces of Local Food”). Under each heading, the author sketches the history of this community food-system through profiles of at least four individual food-activists, who describe how they got involved, and then a brief interpretative chapter describing “how it works”; the “it” being “the student farm”, “the CSA (community supported agriculture)”, and “Community outreach”. Jeremy Smith, a journalist who specializes in environmental writing and social profiles, is well qualified to tell this story, both as a resident participant in this vibrant food community, and as the husband of Crissy McMullan, who as a graduate student in Environmental Studies, took a lead role in negotiating the University of Montana’s “Farm to College” program.

The pioneering partners in these food-system operations and community-building are the sociology and environmental studies professors at the University of Montana, Missoula; the municipality and its school systems, which provide the land, the scraps for composting and recycling, and the kids who learn on-farm about local, organically grown, healthy food and then teach their parents to appreciate the same. Additional partners are local landscape architects, who design innovative affordable housing merged into community gardens and a small poultry farm; restaurateurs who encourage the organic farms to experiment with producing the highest quality food, which they then turn into delectable culinary products; the low-income recipients of high-quality farm produce, which keep the system moving with their enthusiasm; and the various food bank and outreach administrators, who figure out how to reach the lowest income households through homeless shelter kitchens and food pantries. Each of the biographical vignettes reports “how I did it” and then the short interpretative chapters indicate “how you can do it”–complete with key websites and resources that can help you on your way. References to “additional resources” at the end of each section echo the “Food First” book approach, which always includes such aids.

Garden City Harvest is a non-profit, which partners with other non-profits and governments at multiple levels to fulfill its three part mission: (1) Grow and distribute healthy food to low-income people; (2) Offer education and training in ecologically conscious food production; (3) Use our sites for the personal restoration of troubled youth and adults. The original PEAS (Program in Ecological Agriculture and Society) farm grows upwards of 100,000 pounds of vegetables each year. It is entrepreneurial, raising almost half its operating funds from CSA shares and seasonal harvest events, and the rest through educational and other grants programs. The agency runs all its operations in partnership with other non-profits: PEAS farm in partnership with the University, Orchard Garden and Community Farm in partnership with an affordable housing non-profit, and has expanded to run seven community garden and neighborhood farm projects in all. Each provides ecological education services, food for work (vegetables for labor), community garden shares for willing low-income households, and food distribution to food-security distribution points. The PEAS farm also has a partnership with the local Court, which sends a half dozen troubled youth to work out their problems through paid labor on-farm, which also includes therapy and the opportunity to forge relationships of trust with college students their age, and intergenerational bonds with the school kids, who come to learn, and the seniors who get some of the produce. As the author says, they are “growing relationships” in addition to vegetables. Two of the individual biographical chapters profile the architect and a beneficiary of the therapy project.

The reader learns from this volume how to re-think what is possible, with sufficient motivation, some good training and resources, and community good will and supportive culture. Students, who should be inspired by the profiles that are brief and easy to read, will not only master the basics of sustainable community gardening and farming, but also learn how to craft a short biographical profile, which integrates direct quotes, and captures the delightful looks and language of children sampling their first carrots or kale. Although not an in-depth resource, this relatively inexpensive coffee-table quality book could serve multiple purposes, as an introductory guide to sustainable agriculture, urban gardening, joyful food writing, or simply the enjoyment of fresh local food. It also offers a handbook on non-profit management.

Would the Missoula model work everywhere? It could, if the key ingredient– highly motivated, mission-driven, well-trained individuals–are available, because farming and gardening are hard work, and one needs skills to grow, market, and sustain these ecological and community-partnership operations, which manage to transform “community supported agriculture” into “agriculture-supported community.”

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