Food gardens are healing gardens – Guest post by Filiz Satir

A boy and his homegrown berries.

A boy and his homegrown berries.

“Food insecurity can have wide-ranging detrimental consequences on the physical and mental health of adults (and) more vulnerable populations…Lack of access to a nutritious and adequate food supply has implications not only for the development of physical and mental disease, but also behaviors and social skills.” — Feeding America, U.S. hunger-relief charity

Food gardens are healing gardens
Guest post by Filiz Satir

Families with limited incomes often lack the means to put fresh, nutritious food on the table. In the “land of plenty” a stunning 1 in 6 adults, and 1 in 5 children suffer from poor nutrition and struggle with hunger.

In addition to food assistance programs, food banks and other hunger relief groups, American cities are witnessing a growth in urban agriculture and associated non-profits working to fight food insecurity. Programs that support urban and suburban food production are providing low-income families with the skills and tools to grow fresh, local and healthy food.  One such group is Seattle’s Just Garden Project that builds home gardens for eligible families living 200 percent below the poverty line in King County, Washington.

“We are spreading the use of household gardens to help end hunger, improve day-to-day food security and decrease food-related health issues in lower income families,” says Stephanie Seliga, manager of Just Garden Project (JGP).  Now in its third year, JGP builds 30 kitchen gardens a year for eligible low-income families and vulnerable groups. The recipients’ participation in the garden “build outs,” shifts their personal experience with food from one of being a consumer only to being a producer.

Each JGP garden consists of three raised beds, soil, seeds, starts for two seasons, growing guide, education program and mentorship.  In one year, a single JGP garden can produce upwards of $650 worth of organic fruits and vegetables. Since 2010, JGP has built more than 70 gardens—feeding more than 2,000 people fresh, local, and organic food.

Raised bed vegetable garden typifies that kind of gardens Seattle’s Just Garden Project installs for low-income families.

Home and community gardens offer people who struggle with hunger, poor nutrition and even loneliness, the means to experience food security and self-reliance, nutritional sustenance and better health and even stronger social connections.  In many parts of the world, home gardens – sometimes called backyard or kitchen gardens – have an established tradition. They offer great potential for improving household food security and alleviating micronutrient deficiencies. Home and shared-space gardens can enhance food security in several ways, most importantly through: 1) direct access to a variety of nutritionally-rich foods and 2) increased purchasing power from savings on food bills, and income from selling garden harvests.

Millions affected by food insecurity

The definition of “food security” is short: dependable access to adequate and nutritious food to sustain good physical and mental health. Too many in rural and urban America live in a chronic or intermittent state of “food insecurity.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture, limited resources prevent 50 million Americans from getting enough food.  And nearly 17 million U.S. children (18 and younger) live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food to ensure good health.

In 2011, a record 46.7 million Americans—or roughly one in four adults — received food assistance from one of 15 federal programs, reports the USDA. Of that total, near one-half were children. Another 9 percent of recipients were age 60 or older.

Food insecure and low-income people are especially vulnerable to obesity and the health problems associated with it.   Several studies point to the correlation between low-income families (communities) and their limited resources and/or accessibility to healthy, affordable food.  In Washington State where between 13 and 16 percent of the residents receive food assistance, 26 percent are obese. In King County 9 percent residents get food assistance, and 15.4 percent are obese.

 “There is a direct link between a person’s income status and his or her chances of being overweight” says Seliga, explaining that low-income communities often lack full-service grocery stores or farmers markets where people can buy fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These areas are referred to as “food deserts.” “Low cost and highly processed foods abound in low income neighborhoods; this puts low income families at the highest risk to experience malnutrition and, down the line, poor diet-related health issues.”

Gardens as a source of health and food security

To  understand how the gardens have improved the lives of recipients, JGP conducted a pre- and post survey.  The 2011 and 2012 spring (pre) and fall (post) surveys contained a combination of 26 qualitative and quantitative questions.  From year to year, the results were much the same. Garden recipients reported the following changes in their health and nutritional activities after participating in our program:

85% reported eating more vegetables than before they had a garden and said their eating habits had changed as a result of having accessible fresh produce

95% reported that they shared their garden yields with people outside of the home/organization

67% reported an increase the time spent outside in their yard and 60% increase their regular exercise

26% reported a decrease their consumption of pre-packaged meals

54% reported an increase in access to fresh produce

39% reported a decrease their reliance on the food bank

13% reported a decreased their experience of hunger and missed meals

“We support individuals in taking control of their food and health now thereby laying a strong foundation of wellness for generations to come,” says Seliga. “By putting the production of food, specifically fruits and vegetables, into their hands we simultaneously address the need for nutritionally-dense food and the value of consuming health-enhancing vegetables over processed food.”

Learn more about JGP and other organizations that are helping low-income, underserved and otherwise vulnerable groups meet their food and nutrition needs by installing food gardens and teaching them how to grow their own food:

Just Garden Project (A program of Seattle Tilth)
4649 Sunnyside Avenue N.
Seattle, WA 98103
The JGP builds subsidized food gardens, offers subsidized garden/nutrition education courses, and engages the community at large to participate in this work.

2016 Elliott Ave NW
Olympia, WA 98502
GRuB, We partner with youth and people with low-incomes to create empowering individual & community food solutions. We offer tools & trainings to help build a just & sustainable food system.

2203 NE Oregon Street
Portland, OR 97232
GROWINGGARDENS promotes home-scale organic food gardening to improve nutrition, health and self-reliance while enhancing the quality of life and the environment for individuals and communities in Portland, Oregon. We support low income households for three years with seeds, plants, classes, mentors and more.

Planting Justice
996B 62nd St
Oakland, CA 94608
Planting Justice offers a variety of programs related to the development of local, sustainable food systems. One of those programs, Transform Your Yard, centers around helping families of all income levels maximize their yard’s productive capacity. They design and install raised vegetable beds, fruit trees, compost systems and much more.

Growing Gardens
PO Box 1066
Boulder, CO 80306-1066
Growing Gardens enriches its community through sustainable urban agriculture. Growing Gardens unites the Boulder County community through urban agricultural projects, such as: The Cultiva Youth Project (Ages 12 – 19), The Children’s Peace Garden (Ages 4 – 10), Horticultural Therapy (Seniors and People with Disabilities), Fresh Food, Families & Fitness, and The Community Gardens (General Public).

The Face of Food Insecurity in America: To understand the depth and breadth of America’s food insecurity crisis, click on this map:


U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services. National Center for Health Statistics. Prevalence of Obesity in the United States, 2009-2010. Jan 2012, available at

U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services. National Center for Health Statistics. Obesity and Socioeconomic Status in Children and Adolescents: United States, 2005-2008. Dec 2010, available at

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program Data System, SNAP Participation, 2009 Total SNAP Participants (state by state).

Many thanks to TLN’s Events Editor Filiz Satir for another great guest post. Filiz lives in Seattle and just launched the blog, Nearby Nature, a space devoted to the restorative and healing qualities of gardens, green spaces, and other naturalized urban landscapes. In 2011, Filiz received a post-graduate certificate in Therapeutic and Healing Gardens from the University of Washington, College of Built Environments.