PORTLAND, Maine — Portlanders who can afford to buy fresh vegetables or garden on their own property may have to wait even longer to get a coveted spot in one of the city’s community gardens.
In an effort to put a dent in the region’s burgeoning food insecurity problem, the organization that manages Portland’s community gardens started giving preference to low-income Portlanders and has enlisted high school students to go door to door to recruit would-be farmers.
A new initiative by Cultivating Community and the city of Portland moves low-income residents to the top of the waiting list for the roughly 40 plots that open each year in the city’s 10 gardens from Munjoy Hill to Libbytown. The previous policy was to move low-income residents up five spaces. As of mid-March, 300 people were on the waiting list — 31 of whom were considered low income.
Twenty percent of Mainers without regular access to healthy food, who struggle to feed themselves and their families, live in Cumberland County, according to a recent report. And while the rate of food insecurity in the United States dropped to 12.7 percent in 2015, it was still 15.8 percent in Maine. In Portland, 52 percent of school children rely on a free or reduced-price lunch.
“The community garden network was largely created with funding intended to support low- and moderate-income families,” Cultivating Community director Craig Lapine said. “We live in a community where more than half of our kids are at risk for hunger, yet these families have been underrepresented in the garden network for a long time.”
To spread the word on the new policy, Anna Sommo, Cultivating Community’s youth programs manager, is taking high school kids to subsidized housing developments located near community gardens after school to canvas.
These teens, studying food justice, are knocking on doors with clipboards in hand to explain the concept. They tell people where plots are located and how to sign up. Many students speak several languages, Sommo said, which helps lower the barrier to entry.
“It’s something that touches my heart. So many people are in need of resources. We are helping people know where to get them,” Nicole Umurerwa, a junior at Deering High School, said.
“The change is not meant to restrict people but give everyone a fair crack at the plots,” Lapine said. “Our goal is to make sure they know it’s available and create access if they want it.”
Two people contacted on the waiting list applauded the new guidelines, saying they could easily find a fresh food alternative, such as buying a seasonal farm share, known as community supported agriculture, which grants members weekly access to veggies from a local grower.
Keston Geistwalker, a 27-year-old automotive technician, was hoping to garden this summer in the Libbytown gardens but will gladly step aside for a hungry neighbor.
“If there are food insecure individuals interested in gardening, they should have priority over me,” Geistwalker said. “I have the privilege of gardening as a hobby.”
Likewise Mary Alice Scott, community engagement officer at the Portland Food Co-op who has been waiting for a year, took the news in stride.
“I have lots of access to fresh food, and I recently moved and have a garden plot now,” she said. As an alternative, she will likely “buy a CSA.”
In 2017, a place to grow your own food in Portland is no longer the scarce resource it once was. Cultivating Community recently added two new gardens, in Libbytown and on the Eastern Promenade. The number of garden plots has more than tripled since Cultivating Community took over management of the city lots in 2013, Lapine said. The city’s first gardening plots launched in the late ’90s.
“We know that many of our low-income existing gardeners depend on gardening to put food on the table, more than just a hobby. We want to see them move up the list,” Ethan Hipple, the city’s parks director, said.