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A new strategy from a community in Maine.

April 10, 2017

Portland, Maine, is taking a very old-fashioned approach to an increasingly publicized problem: City residents battling with food insecurity are now being given priority in community gardens, allowing them the opportunity to grow their own food if they choose.

According to the Bangor Daily News, as recently as 2015, Maine was still above the national average in its rate of food insecurity, with 15.8 percent of its residents struggling to put food on the table. In Portland specifically, 52 percent of school children are in need of free or reduced-price lunches. Meanwhile, since 2013, the city has seen a major expansion of its community gardening program. That year, a group called Cultivating Community took things over, and the number of plots has tripled since. However, the city realized a possible disconnect existed between these plots and the people who could use them the most. “The community garden network was largely created with funding intended to support low and moderate-income families,” Cultivating Community director Craig Lapine told BDN. “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.”

The new policy, which has already taken effect and is being actively promoted to local residents in need thanks to high school student volunteers, moves low-income residents to the top of the list for the approximately 40 plots that open up each year. Previously, these low-income residents were only bumped up the list five spaces—a somewhat meaningless gesture on a list with about 300 people. Only 31 of those people were considered low income. “The change is not meant to restrict people but give everyone a fair crack at the plots,” Lapine was quoted as saying. “Our goal is to make sure they know it’s available and create access if they want it.”

Portland’s parks director, Ethan Hipple, also chimed in, pointing out that, for some residents, gardening is about more than just getting a bit of relaxing outdoor time. “We know that many of our low-income existing gardeners depend on gardening to put food on the table, more than just a hobby,” he said.