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Reed Jules Oppenheimer Foundation

Building Capital in Urban Environments

Oklahoma ranks 50th in fruit and vegetable consumption, while 32.2% of Tulsa County adults are obese.  Residents in North Tulsa die 14 years sooner than those in South Tulsa, and one in three Oklahoma children are obese. 

The Valley Foundation strongly believes that a healthy and vibrant community must promote and foster social, ecological, human, and economic capital which is best thought of as Community Capital. This is equally as true in great societies as it is in struggling third world villages. Tulsa is our home and one of our primary goals is to demonstrate how agroecology can enable and inform Green Community projects and strategies including community gardens, building economic, ecological, human and social capital in abundance, while insuring a bio diverse and resilient community. 

Children bring us our greatest joy as parents, our greatest concerns as a people, our greatest vulnerabilities as a community, and our greatest hope as a society. The Valley Foundation feels strongly then, that when practical, children should be directly involved and have ownership in taking the critical steps towards building Community Capital through agroecology.

Generally speaking, urban agroecology will take the form of triple canopied micro perennial food forests shared by an entire immediate community with space allotted for individualized small garden plots for annual crops and ornamentals. The Valley Foundation is particularly focused on providing this methodology to Tulsa’s disadvantaged communities, where the observed benefits of urban gardens in similar city landscapes across the country are many, and the need for balanced Community Capital is pronounced.

In the Neighborhoods
In low income neighborhoods a considerable percent of the population suffer from food insecurity, and an even larger number will have limited access to affordable and nutritious food. The existence of food deserts require that those living in disadvantaged communities may have to travel several miles to find fresh produce at great expense in travel, time and convenience. The introduction of community gardens will mitigate the effect of food deserts, create employment, spur innovation, and reduce poverty by lowering the cost of food. Community gardens can be 3 to 5 times more productive than traditional large-scale farming, providing thousands of pounds of fresh produce involving people in processes that establish their own food security. The community involvement needed to develop and manage the gardens helps to revitalize the community, building capacity and much needed cohesive social networks across ethno-racial divides as people work together in common purpose and benefit. Community gardens provide much needed green space in lower-income neighborhoods which typically have access to less green space than do other parts of a community. Studies show that crime decreases in neighborhoods as the amount of green space increases.

Community gardens are created and managed by the community itself, thus members acquire new skills that enhance their employability and their sense of self-esteem while learning new social and organizational skills. In ethnically diverse communities it has been observed that people begin to share ideas, foods and recipes, establishing community dinners and social bonds and enhancing community connection. Gardens become a place for positive social interaction and engagement where people come together, breaking isolation in communities where social exclusion and marginalization can be pervasive problems. 

The community garden also provides the opportunity for significant intergenerational interaction enabling more vibrant neighborhoods and stronger family ties as work and product from the garden ultimately involves the whole household. In addition to improved nutrition, the opportunity for increased physical activity that gardening presents is seen as beneficial to health, especially for the elderly, and has been observed to be stress relieving, contributing to improved mental health.

In many cases participants may become interested in broader aspects of the food system and may get involved in bulk-buying groups, food co-ops or community-supported agriculture. Others might begin providing fresh, organic food to local restaurants or support local food banks. Income generated from these activities brings money into the community and circulates within the community, having an important multiplier effect. Some community gardens are set up specifically for and with the help of homeless people, providing them access to fresh food, job skills, social networks and links to neighboring residents that would not have existed before.

The perennial forest aspects of the agro-ecologically oriented community garden provides an oasis of greenery, rich in bio diversity, creating habitat for birds and insects and an ecologically sound and sustainable environment for cleaner, healthier living. In addition to the nutritional, social, and economic benefits of growing their own food, community members and especially children are offered plentiful learning opportunities about their own health and the natural world that previously would not have existed. But perhaps the most significant result of establishing perennial community gardens in disadvantaged communities is the sense of personal ownership, pride and permanence that they instill in the hearts and minds of their gardeners; a transition from vulnerability to self-determination and stewardship.

For the Children
Through access to school and community gardens, children can benefit greatly from an introduction to Agro ecology, understanding the connections between their own health, healthful food, and regional sustainable agriculture while experiencing the accompanying ecological, economical, and social benefits of a healthy environment and their own role in creating it. They learn how healthy lifestyle choices can nurture their bodies, their communities, and the planet. By developing awareness children will become proactive in promoting bio-diversity, pesticide free land stewardship, and the creation of healthy and sustainable food systems and communities. Lessons learned include a practical, out of classroom application of math, biology, physics and history in support of in classroom STEM initiatives, basic business principles and important job and life skills.

From a purely health standpoint, better nutrition and physical activity associated with hands on gardening can play a vital role in a child’s health. A child who has the chance to dig or pick in a garden, learn about nutrition, and have the opportunity to cook fresh foods is more likely to eat these healthy foods when available. Childhood onset obesity and related health consequences like type 2 diabetes continue to be a major public health issue in the U.S., particularly among African Americans, Hispanic/Mexican Americans, and low-income children. Childhood obesity may have mental health consequences such as low self-esteem, anxiety disorder, and depression. Evidence suggests an association between better nutrition and improvements in weight measures and a child’s level of attention and academic performance. These nutritional issues are especially noticeable with respect to those of lower economic status who experience food insecurity.

Green school grounds have been observed to be more inclusive of children who may feel isolated on the basis of gender, class, race, and ability, suggesting that these spaces promote social inclusion. Gardening can foster inquiry, action, curiosity and healthy behavior amongst children, accommodating health and social disparities, and diverse learning styles, while promoting positive peer relationships. Working together they learn to interact with each other in a socially meaningful and physically productive manner.  Children who may not excel in school may demonstrate skills and interests that would not otherwise be used. The required participation, planning, work and responsibility are essential traits for later work readiness and employment preparation. In studies on Farm to School programs, parents report positive changes in social skills and self-esteem, responsible behaviors, saving money, increased physical activity, and an improved work ethic among children. Others have observed that the simple exposure to green space for children reduces stress and increases a sense of wellness and belonging, while heightening their awareness and appreciation for living things.

Urban Methodology
We envision tremendous community outreach, collaborating with and becoming a resource for local groups like Global Gardens, The Tulsa Housing Authority, Job Corps, Street School, Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition, Up with Trees, Compatible Lands Foundation, Sustainable Tulsa, Tulsa Public Schools, Rotary, and many others to further their mission objectives, beautify Tulsa, educate children, and help build community especially for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.  While many programs may exist to establish inner city food security, provide access to fresh, nutritious produce, and preserve urban open green spaces, fewer capacity building, participatory programs exist to train residents and their children on urban agroecology principles and practices.

Programs will initially include highly visible pilot projects in Section 8 Housing areas, select schools that may have already initiated gardening programs, along public easements like the Tisdale Highway, and privately held urban plots where conservation easements might be appropriate. Community leaders and potential leaders will attend special seminars and learning sessions at the Valley Park Agroecology Center to further study agroecology methods, nutrition, cooking, and marketing concepts which they can take back to their communities. Numerous educational excursions and camp outs will be arranged for children and their parents.

Field activities at the Valley Park Agroecology Center will play a key role in training highly skilled urban farmers who can return to their communities, to shape urban food systems which will meet the needs of their communities. Training a critical mass of “trainers of trainers” can rapidly lead to the scaling up of agro-ecologically based urban programs that will provide food security, direct access and improved nutrition for the urban poor and serve as a replicable model for other cities. Ongoing participatory research projects involving Valley Park staff, urban gardeners and local children will amplify public knowledge in agroecology to support the wide spread and rapid dissemination of information and innovation through continual horizontal community outreach.