More than a hobby, backyard and community gardens have become an important source of nutritious, affordable food for many Americans.

In the predominantly Black Ivanhoe neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., residents worked together to expand urban agriculture by advocating to change an outdated zoning ordinance and transformed an abandoned lot into an inviting public park that includes a community garden.

“The economic downturn has affected people in center-city neighborhoods like Ivanhoe,” says Margaret May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council since 2001. “Being out of work has caused people to be more resourceful. A number of residents were already gardening, but the citywide initiative called more attention to it, increasing public awareness of the possibilities.”

The Neighborhood Council partnered with the Greater Kansas City Food Policy Coalition and the local nonprofit KC Healthy Kids to support the urban agriculture initiative in an effort to provide healthier food options for the community. But the group quickly ran up against a “lawn culture” of wealthier, single-family home owners and the local realtors association, which actively opposed changes to the city’s existing ordinance.

Under the old ordinance, Kansas City residents could grow vegetables in their front and back yards for their own consumption, and they could sell it off-site (at farmers’ markets, for example), but they were not allowed to sell produce at their residences. They were also not permitted to have prepaid subscription members come to their homes to pick up produce, a system known as Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA; nor could residents who sold produce have non-residents help with planting, weeding, harvesting or other growing activities.

After a lengthy advocacy effort, the city council approved a new ordinance that allows for on-site sales by home gardens and community gardens, and for nonresidents—friends and relatives, volunteers and interns—to donate time helping with gardening activities. It also allows CSA subscribers to work on a CSA site and pick up their produce there. Additionally, the ordinance established separate definitions for home gardens, community gardens and CSA farms. By establishing rules for each, the ordinance went a long way toward eliminating some of the barriers faced by local food growers.

The measure was an extraordinary achievement for community advocates whose work on the initiative had begun just a few months earlier.

“A lot of folks, including First Lady Michelle Obama, had been talking about healthier eating,” says May. “In Kansas City, with all the discussion around the new ordinance, even more people are now starting their own gardens.”

The efforts of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council and KC Healthy Kids have been supported in part by a grant from Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC), a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) that advances community-based solutions that will help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. The program—which encompasses 50 communities including Greater Kansas City—focuses on changing policies and environments to support active living and healthy eating among children and families, placing special emphasis on reaching children who are at highest risk based on race or ethnicity, income or geographic location.

While not everyone has their own yard for gardening, community gardens carved out of urban neighborhoods can make gardening accessible to all residents.

In Ivanhoe, this type of community garden is at the heart of Jim Nutter Park, named for a mortgage lender who started his business in Kansas City in 1951 and was among the first to make real estate loans to Black residents. Built on a vacant double lot adjacent to the community center that houses the neighborhood council, Nutter Park was designed with an active, healthy lifestyle in mind. In addition to raised beds for gardening, it features a walking trail, picnic tables, playground equipment and an open area where youth play volleyball and touch football.

“Until we had this park, there was nowhere to play or walk around here that was safe,” says Dina Newman, Ivanhoe’s HKHC project manager, whose position is funded in part through the RWJF grant. “As soon as it opened, I put together a walking club that started with just myself and one other woman. She’s a lung cancer survivor and since starting her daily walking routine has lost 14 pounds.”

Participation in the walking club is free, and members range in age from their 20s to their 70s. The walks take place Monday through Friday, for at least 30 minutes or one mile. Newman tracks walkers’ participation and weight loss. When it’s too cold to walk outdoors, they walk inside.

"The fact that there’s a club keeps it going,” says Newman. “Walking has helped them lose pounds and improve health conditions like asthma and high blood pressure. They are proud of themselves. People driving by see us and want to find out how they can get involved. Now we have whole families who are walking.”

Through ongoing learning activities sponsored by the neighborhood council’s youth committee, Ivanhoe youth built three raised garden beds in 2009 that provide fresh produce for dozens of families. They also serve as an outdoor classroom thanks to the University of Missouri Extension’s Eating From the Garden program, a nutrition and gardening curriculum taught by volunteers.

“People know they need to eat healthy and get exercise and now we have a safe place to help them do those things,” adds May. “It’s also about camaraderie and community pride. And it proves that environmental change really does lead to behavioral change.”

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