The noon sun shimmered on the Lauderdale Lakes parking lot on a recent Thursday as Beverly Williams arrived to inspect the young herbs and vegetables flourishing in concrete block beds.
“My babies,” Williams, the master gardener of the city’s Community Garden Club, cooed over seedlings planted by residents from the homes near the property in the 4200 block of Northwest 36th Street.
From tomatoes and okra to cabbages and comfrey, each bed was a personal expression of its owner’s tastes, down to the names painted by hand on wooden signs: “From Me to You,” and “Marva’s Garden.”
With the Affordable Care Act focusing more attention on building healthier communities, Lauderdale Lakes and Dania Beach are among the South Florida cities embracing urban farming as one way of trying to improve the health of traditionally African- and Caribbean-American neighborhoods where chronic illnesses can run high. But as the planners of one garden discovered, “build it” and “they will come” doesn’t necessarily happen.
In Lauderdale Lakes, Community Redevelopment Director Gary Rogers used a planning tool called a charrette to get community members talking about what they wanted to see in their neighborhood: a garden.
“They asked for it. It was their idea,” Rogers said.
The garden opened in 2011 with 17 beds. The community’s response was encouraging. “We have people who’ve never grown anything,” said Williams, the master gardener.
Any Lauderdale Lakes resident can join the club for a $10 initiation fee and pay $20 for a bed per growing season to grow plants. Demand has almost tripled to 47 beds this year.
In Dania Beach, CRA director Jeremy Earle took a different path when planning a garden. “CRAs sit on the business side of government. They must eliminate blight and show a return on investment,” Earle said.
Instead of a community garden, Earle envisioned a self-sustaining market garden run by locals, creating jobs as well as potentially improving health.
Dubbed PATCH — short for People’s Access To Community Horticulture — the garden took root in 2013 in Dania Beach’s Sun Garden Isles neighborhood, designated a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Food deserts are areas where the residents have limited healthy food options.
Helped by seed money from the Broward Regional Health Planning Council, the city set out 2,500 grow bags — plastic bags filled with soil and nutrients — on city-owned land that had been a magnet for dirt bikers and trash. Besides being a productive growing medium, the bags safeguarded against possible saltwater intrusion and potential contaminants from a nearby warehouse site, PATCH’s management team said.
Soon the 1.6 acres blossomed with kale and collards, Swiss chard and baby eggplants. With shoppers from Fort Lauderdale as well as the city’s winter Canadian tourist trade, PATCH’s profits easily exceeded the $1,000 a year in CRA funds needed to run it.
But something was missing: the local people PATCH was supposed to serve.
Few studies exist to guide cities in their food garden ventures. Mary Ellen Mitchell-Rosen, an assistant professor of nursing at Nova Southeastern University who included the PATCH and Lauderdale Lakes projects in a study of urban farming and health, described PATCH as “community-placed,” rather than “community-based,” as Lauderdale Lakes was.
In the Dania Beach case, Sun Garden Isles residents told city officials in 2008 that they wanted a community garden. A 2013 Broward Regional Health Council report suggests one of the lessons of PATCH is to “give people what they’ve requested — even if initially it is on a small scale.”
Earle had made sure to put longtime Dania Beach residents like Leon Carroll, 78, on the garden’s advisory board. A truck farmer’s son, Carroll, along with other board members, remembered the city’s agricultural past as “The Tomato Capital of the World.”
But Earle also brought in urban farming experts from the outside to help jump-start PATCH’s ambitious market garden model. In hindsight, “People come from the outside and don’t understand the context of the community. It took us a year to undo that,” he said.
Eventually he brought in another consultant, Dion Taylor, who created a business plan to put the Dania Beach garden on a solid footing. Taylor’s consulting group has been working since October to increase residents’ participation.
“It’s a fractured community. People walk around without pep in their step,” Taylor said. He counseled patience to increase appreciation for healthier food.
In Lauderdale Lakes, residents had embraced their community garden and wanted the city to expand it to include gardens for children to plant. CRA director Rogers designated another blacktop lot at Northwest 40th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard that five Broward County schools now use to teach kids to grow food from scratch.
A van load of third-graders from that city’s Piney Grove Boys Academy arrived last week, rushing eagerly to their school’s garden bed, where they weeded, watered and harvested peas to dry and plant next season.
“It’s good,” said 9-year-old Matthew Wilson, biting into his first-ever green bean.
In Dania Beach, Taylor has gotten PATCH to reach out to area schools so children can experience the excitement of making things grow.
Now each Saturday, more people from the neighborhood stop by PATCH. The produce is half price for locals. Purchases since January have doubled after Taylor introduced a food stamp sales system.
He also brought in a group to demonstrate healthy versions of popular recipes using the garden’s organic produce. Customers now ask for the recipes and buy the ingredients.
The biggest sign of progress may come this summer when according to Earle the PATCH team will advertise two paid positions with training — farmer and market manager — for community members to fill.
For now, some of the neighbors remain at arm’s length from the project . On the next street over, Marvin Brown sat beside his backyard vegetable garden watching the construction of a new building that will house a café and merchandising to help PATCH generate more revenue.
“That was a public right of way. How can they put that there?” said Brown, who hasn’t visited the garden next door.
Taylor says it’s too soon to tell from sales data whether PATCH is making an impact on the community.
“The thing about plants is they’re harmonious,” he said. “They do one thing: grow. I wish we were more like that.”