Standing in Pleasant Hill Community Garden in Macon, Georgia—a city where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line—Naomi Johnson holds up her arm. "I envision children being able to come over here, getting a plum or peach and having that good juice run down to their elbow," she says, swiping at her forearm. "You know? It's what every child needs to experience."
Johnson is program coordinator for Pleasant Hill Community Garden. She co-founded the garden with Peter Givens, President of Pleasant Hill Neighborhood Improvement Group.
"We inititally set up the community garden because we felt it was something very good...nutritionally," Givens explains. "But also, it was to be a catalyst to bring people together."
The pair invites parents, students and other community members to tend the garden and glean the fruits of their labor. The hope is that by connecting with their food—and each other—Macon residents will want to invest in their community, and give thought to the food they eat.
The key to overcoming poor eating habits, Givens says, is education.
"You can't go to a 10-year-old and say 'No more McDonalds!' You just can't do that. You have to educate that child. And it has to come from home and from school," he says. By learning where food comes from and how to eat well, he says, "[a] kid is gonna grow up eating properly. This kid is not going to be obese."
Givens grew up in Macon, but after high school moved to New York City, where he became familiar with what has since been coined "urban gardening."
"New York was about getting people in the community to kind of band together for a cause. If you could take an abandoned building or a vacant lot, cut all of that stuff down and beautify it, well, that made that block look better. Also, it made the property values go up. It brought community members together, because they were the ones working that garden. It was a win-win situation for everybody," he says.
These days, he says, the popularity of urban gardens in New York is greater than ever.
"Right now, if you stand in front of a vacant lot in New York City for more than five minutes, somebody will be standing behind you with a rake saying ‘GO FOR IT!’ you know? Because it works. It really works.”
When Givens returned to Macon in 2004 to check up on family property, he learned that a freeway that had torn up his neighborhood in the 1960s was under construction to add two more lanes. He saw his opportunity to give back to his community.
“I said, I can’t let this happen again. I was too young when it happened the first time, but now I’m older, I’m wiser, maybe I can do something to make a change.”
He and others decided on a garden, hoping for the kind of unity and neighborhood improvement that Givens had witnessed in New York City.
The first hurdle was convincing Pleasant Hill neighborhood that a garden was a good idea.
"They had never really heard of community gardens here in Macon," he says. "We actually had to take some people on a tour of the garden just outside Atlanta for them to see what community gardening was all about. And they were really raising their eyebrows.”
Five years later, Givens and Johnson tend a teeming plot of land full of hot peppers, cayenne, jalapenos, mild banana peppers, green peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes, peas, beans, mustard greens, collard greens, turnip greens, okra, cantaloupe, watermelon, corn, eggplant…. The list goes on. They also have an herb garden with sage, sweet basil, lemon grass, echinacea and fennel.
Local university students and visiting high schoolers help out, and Johnson and Givens have to move fast to keep up. "If you miss a cucumber today, it’ll be the size of your arm tomorrow,” Givens jokes. Much of what they harvest goes into delivery bags, which they distribute to families and senior citizens in the Pleasant Hill neighborhood.
Since they started, four gardens like theirs have sprung up in Macon.
Johnson and Givens are gamechangers in the U.S., less well-known than Michael Pollan or Alice Waters, but no less important. And they're not the only ones.
Long before Food, inc. shook up America's perception of its food system, community organizers were in the trenches, pushing the food movement forward.
Last year, Participant Media and Active Voice set out to recognize that quiet renaissance, hitting the road to connect and collaborate with local changemakers who are reclaiming the food industry. Their campaign, "Ingredients for Change," wanted to see change from the grassroots level—by engaging with the public—all the way up to policy makers, who they hoped to influence with ideas for action.
Between November of 2009 and June of this year, the tour spanned 27 cities from Redding, California, to Hartford, Connecticut. At each stop, Ingredients for Change worked with locals—like Johnson and Givens—to host a screening of Food, Inc., organize panel discussions, promote community dialogue, and develop direct advocacy to help mobilize communities.
Focusing on lower-income areas with a lack of access to nutritious foods and high rates of obesity, Ingredients for Change aimed to "reach audiences 'beyond the choir," says Active Voice Project Coordinator Matthew Green.
The campaign's goal was to continue the conversation after the credits rolled and the lights came on.
"The movie gets everything started," Givens says. "But it's encumbent upon us to take things further."
The campaign launched a series of videos chronicaling the real change that is happening every day in communities nationwide. For Givens and Johnson's story, check out this video below. Then go here for the rest of the series.