The Role of Community Gardens During the COVID-19 Pandemic

February 25, 2021

Empty grocery store shelves and mile-long lines at local food banks are evidence of the major disruptions that have occurred in the food supply chain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has further exacerbated the longstanding challenge of food insecurity across households in the U.S., disrupting access to fresh and nutritious foods at affordable prices for growing urban populations, and in effect has exposed the true fragility of our nation’s food system.

Throughout this all, community gardens have been working behind the scenes, strengthening the growth of local food production and focused on establishing a more resilient and reliable food system. For many communities, such as The Village in Rochester, Minnesota, community gardens have played a major role in addressing the effects of the pandemic, serving as a space that not only provides access to fresh foods to alleviate food insecurity but also as a source of social support and emotional well-being for community residents during this time of crisis.

Families across the nation have reported increasing rates of food insecurity since the start of the pandemic. Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the U.S. estimates that more than 54 million people in the country, including 18 million children are currently experiencing food insecurity. Using data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, the Urban Institute has indicated that 31 percent of families have had difficulties affording food in addition to other basic needs.

As many urban residents struggle with access to fresh fruits and vegetables and continue to face food insecurity, community gardens have been helpful in alleviating these nutritional gaps. 

Household food insecurity was the most commonly reported hardship, disproportionately affecting lower-income families and Blacks and Hispanic communities at nearly twice the rate of white adults. As many urban residents struggle with access to fresh fruits and vegetables and continue to face food insecurity, community gardens have been helpful in alleviating these nutritional gaps. Community gardens help families reduce pandemic-related economic losses by supplementing their diets with nutritious foods.

Community gardens are more than just great places to cultivate fruits and vegetables. They also serve as spaces to cultivate social support and emotional well-being. Joining a community garden allows for the opportunity to increase one’s social interactions and gain a sense of social connectedness and commitment to the community. A study in Denver showed that gardeners valued the social connections they developed at the garden and mutual trust was established through the sharing of tools and vegetables. Participating in community gardens has also shown to provide individuals an increased sense of control and agency over the type and quantity of food they decide to grow.

Among individuals who are currently experiencing a loss of connection and increased isolation from COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, community gardens are essential for improving mental health. Community gardens such as The Village continue to provide community residents the ability to connect and socialize. Even though interactions occur in a socially distanced fashion, engagement in the community garden has provided individuals with a much-needed outlet for social and emotional support during this pandemic.

Some might argue community gardens are inefficient, costly, and do not offer a complete solution to food insecurity among low-income urban communities. While I would argue community gardens are cost-effective with the right support and funding, the reality is, no matter how large or how much produce is grown, community gardens are not going to single-handedly solve our current problem of food insecurity. They are merely part of the solution to addressing a much larger issue. What community gardens do offer is improved access and availability to nutritional foods as well as the opportunity for positive health outcomes, particularly when it comes to physical and social wellbeing.

Public health practitioners, for years, have promoted participation in community gardens given their outcomes of increased physical activity and vegetable intake. A study among urban adults in Michigan revealed that community gardeners consumed on average, 1.4 times more fruit and vegetables than non-gardeners and were 3.5 times more likely to consume fruits and vegetables at least five times daily. Exposing communities to gardens and offering access to healthy produce has the potential for great improvements in physical and social health outcomes.

As the U.S. begins to develop a post-pandemic recovery plan in an effort to establish a “new normal,” it is critical that community gardens be assessed and recognized as contributors to community development, health, and social wellbeing. Local government leaders, in partnership with community-level organizations, funding agencies, and community advocates, can promote healthier communities by supporting the role of community gardens in improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables and encouraging a communal space for social interactions. By taking a community-centered approach, community gardens play a very important role in the re-envisioning of health and social wellbeing for communities during a time of crisis and have the potential to strengthen and nurture a space for collective action.

Luz Mercado is an MPH student in the Department of Population and Family Health.