In Seminole Heights, garden activists call for Food Not Lawns

07/26/10 Kelly Benjamin
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This weekend in Tampa marked the first official gathering of the local chapter of Food Not Lawns, an international movement dedicated to building communities by turning yards into edible gardens.

The movement began in 2006, as a grassroots gardening project in Eugene, Oregon and now has dozens of chapters in cities all over the world. The recently founded Tampa group, with over 60 members, meets twice a month for seed swapping, gardening workshops, and something called permablitzing. Natasha Motesharei is a co-founder of the local group that met at the Seminal Heights Community Garden on Saturday.

"Food Not Lawns Tampa is an organization that started about a month ago. Our first meeting was a month ago. We had about 40 people turn out. The purpose of it is really two meetings. One is networking and resource knowledge sharing, kind of like a social get together. And to talk about the upcoming projects, which is the second part of the monthly meetings. Today was our first permablitz. The idea behind the permablitz is that we get a group of people together to share labor, share resources, and get a project knocked out in a couple hours that on their own would take much longer, if done at all."

Community gardening has exploded in cities across the country. In part because of concerns over food security, peak oil, climate change, and access to affordable, locally grown, organic produce. Eric Stewart, a gardening activist from Pasco County, also took part in the Food Not Lawns Event.

"Well, I've been starting up a transition initiative in New Port Richy. And we've been talking about peak oil and climate change. With the climate bill getting pretty much halted in Congress right now, I feel that it's not on the government to change how we live. It's up to the people. And it's always been up to the people. I think it starts from the grass roots, like these little Food Not Lawns, [and] permablitzs, and it grows from there."

Tampa has seen several neighborhood gardening groups start up in the past couple of years in East Tampa, Sulfur Springs, and Seminole Heights. The popularity of gardening has prompted the city council to propose an ordinance, regulating community gardens within the city. However, some gardening advocates find the proposed ordinance overly restrictive. Again, Natasha Motesharei of Food Not Lawns:

"From the research that I've done, anytime the city has enacted an ordinance, it's to support the community garden movement. The ordinance, as it's written right now, does not do that. It feels very penalizing, actually. I don't know if the city council, right now, I know there are some people there that support community gardens, but I'm not sure if everybody gets what a community garden is really about. There seems to be some misunderstanding about that. Concerns that it would compete with agriculture, which is not what it's about. People come here and they give give their time and they give their energy. It's not about profit."

Tampa City council member, Mary Mulhern, who has been a strong advocate for gardens in the city, including allowing gardens on city owned property, admits that Tampa is sometimes slow to adopt new ideas. However, she is confident that city will come around eventually.

"I think this administration has good intentions and good goals. It really is about putting those into actions and Tampa's always slow with new ideas. I think we'll get there. I don't know if it'll be right away or not, but reality is that all the community gardens are blooming and growing. People are doing it on private property, and doing very well. So, whether the city wants to contribute land or not. They haven't shown any intention of doing that for the last three years that I've been promoting it. The neighborhoods have been asking for it. So, I don't know. I wouldn't expect that it's going to happen anytime soon and I do hope that when we have some change in March 2011, maybe we'll have people more interested or more supportive of community gardening."

Willow Lamont, a longtime local gardener, sees that support as essential to building community:

"In so many of the communities, where they've been established for a long time, some of them since the eighties or the seventies, communities find that not only does it help build community and feed people nutritious food locally, that doesn't get transported long distances, but there is always less crime. There is always more neighbor-to-neighbor communication that happens in a beneficial way in the neighborhood. It always enhances the entire community, not just people who eat from those garden plots. So city after city, throughout the United States and other countries have experienced this. When you have community gardens throughout your city, it always transforms the community. So I would like to see our local bay area administrators (on county and city levels) really get behind this because it benefits the entire community. That research has been out there for decades so they can certainly find that out for themselves."

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