The basic question guiding this article is what do people living in an underserved neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri, think about the urban gardens that have sprouted up around them during the last ten years. The question arose because of the mixed success of a produce market that was meant to target the nutritional needs of this African American community. Based on interviews conducted at two garden sites created by the nonprofit HopeBUILD, the author found that the community members valued the gardens less for the nutrition they offered than for the values and sense of heritage they conveyed. The ways they spoke about the gardens and produce resonated with old agrarian myths about the cultural importance of working the land to build a strong sense of character and independence. Many have relatives who took part in the Great Migration from the rural South in the early twentieth century. Although African Americans suffered devastating hardships from corrupt and racist tenant and farm policies, many held fast to the agrarian myth that to own a farm, or produce one’s own food, enabled self-determination and full rights of citizenship. These inner-city African Americans, therefore, stake claim to one of the longest-lasting and most potent symbols of American national identity—the American farmer. The symbol of the farmer is as relevant in urban lots as it is in the countryside. The point is that healthy food and nutritious food are not necessarily the same thing. Healthy foods are ones that sustain cultures, not just bodies.
Making Sense of Urban Gardens
Cindy Ott is an associate professor in the American Studies department at Saint Louis University. She writes about the nexus of food, environment, history, and identity. Her first book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, looks at the ways the American romance with pumpkins has revitalized rural communities. Her next project, “Biscuits and Buffalo: Squashing Myths about Food in Indian Country,” includes a book and photograph exhibition about twentieth-century Plains Indian food production and consumption traditions.
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Cindy Ott; Making Sense of Urban Gardens. Gastronomica 1 August 2015; 15 (3): 18–27. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2015.15.3.18
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