Monday, March 22, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Tonopah Community Garden
A small group of Las Vegas community organizers thinks a patch of dirt in a long vacant lot can transform an entire community.
The five-acre Tonopah Community Garden is nestled behind rental properties on Tonopah Drive near Washington Avenue in West Las Vegas. The neighborhood is dotted with abandoned lots and low-rent residential properties.
Rosalind Brooks has made it the mission of her Together We Can group to lure people out of those apartments and cottages and into the garden.
About 70 adults and five children planted the first 15 seedbeds with pepper seedlings and 10 fruit trees March 13. Brooks and a few members of the core of her fledgling group were back at the garden this weekend to build a second set of raised seedbeds where they hope to plant tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables.
As best she can tell, hers is the city’s first community garden, a place where urban families can be introduced to growing fruits and vegetables and to the pleasure of a homegrown meal.
Nutritionists and urban gardeners have for years extolled the benefits of getting urban kids off the couch and into gardens. Studies show children eat more vegetables if they’ve had a hand in growing them, and those exposed to nature are less likely to become obese. Obesity is a huge issue in Clark County, where about 25 percent of adults have diabetes and 10 percent to 15 percent of low-income preschoolers are obese. Brooks says those numbers are even higher in West Las Vegas.
West Las Vegas is what has become known in nutrition circles as a “food desert” — a neighborhood where families have limited access to fresh food and must travel more than a mile to the nearest grocer.
The area has a history of problems getting and keeping a neighborhood grocery store. As recently as 2004, Vons gave up a lease in West Las Vegas because it couldn’t make a profit. Las Vegas officials spent the next four years trying to entice another grocery chain into the space. In late 2008, a Buy Low Market opened there, but it is still the only one in the area and it is several miles from some West Las Vegas residents who have to walk or ride a bus to get to the store.
More than 23 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in “food deserts,” according to the Obama administration, which has promoted programs to improve nutrition in urban communities. Studies show families in these neighborhoods are more likely to eat fast food and suffer from a variety of diet-related chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart trouble.
Brooks points out that a grocery store alone doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
“Even if we had a grocery store on every corner, that doesn’t mean kids will learn to make good choices,” Brooks says. “There’s such a difference in quality between what you can grow yourself and what you get in a store. We want to use that to get kids and the community excited about fresh, healthy food. If the kids grow it themselves, they’re going to eat it. And if their family learns how good vegetables can taste, they’re going to be that much less likely to reach for the Doritos. But if we don’t get these kids now, they’ll continue in a cycle of unhealthy eating that will ultimately lead to major health problems.”
There are also those who can’t afford healthy food on a regular basis — 12 percent of Southern Nevadans in 2008, even before the worst of the recession set in, according to state statistics. Nearly 5 percent were simply not getting enough food. Those numbers have increased dramatically in the past year, social services providers say.
Brooks says she hopes her program can eventually help fill the food gap for some of the neighborhood’s poorest residents.
While Los Angeles, New York City and a few other cities have had community gardens dating back to World War II, urban agriculture had largely gone out of vogue in recent generations. But after first lady Michelle Obama took up the healthy lifestyle mantle last year and famously tore out sod on the South Lawn to make way for a garden, the idea of gardens as a community meeting place has surged. Community gardens are popping up in neighborhoods of all types across the country.
Community and school gardens have also been boosted by a celebrity chef and activist, Alice Waters, who spoke at a food and hunger symposium at UNLV in October.
Waters and other speakers encouraged social services providers and community organizers to start a garden here. She is delighted by the news of Las Vegas’ first community garden because her extensive experience with them in neighborhoods and at schools has shown that these types of projects educate communities about food while providing healthful fruits and vegetables people need.
“I believe that good food should be a right and not a privilege,” she says. “We have an obesity problem in this country. For me the answer to this is bringing all people into a new relationship with food, and a community garden is the best way to do it.”
Studies show community gardeners eat more fresh vegetables and fewer sweet foods and drinks compared with nongardeners. Other studies show increased psychological and social well-being among gardeners. Gardening has the added benefit of saving people money at the store. Gardening teaches children about life cycles, botany and chemistry, and such intangible characteristics as responsibility and patience, garden advocates say.
Brooks, who created Together We Can to make the garden happen, is applying for grants to help her expand it and to create programs to draw the community in. The group is launching an adopt-a-bed program that would fund the construction, seedlings and upkeep of a bed for the benefit of the community. And she’s planning to work with local schools to get children to work in the gardens as part of their biology and life-science lessons. The group is also working on a program to get senior centers their own gardening beds.
Brooks envisions the garden becoming an urban oasis with education programs under a grove of 60 fruit trees surrounded by 250 raised beds. She needs money, of course, but it’s really more about the community buy-in.
“This is their garden and we’re going to be working hard to get that message out that this is available to them,” Brooks said. “It’s such a blessing to have this donated land. We’re going to do our best to make the most of it.”
Getting volunteers and grant money is one thing; actually getting food to grow in the desert is another. Las Vegas is a difficult place to garden. The city’s average annual rainfall of about 3 inches makes Phoenix, with an average rainfall of 8.3 inches, seem lush by comparison. (The owner of the five acres, former Las Vegas Councilman Frank Hawkins, is paying the water bill for the first year. After that, the organization will need to raise enough money to pay the bill.)
Water’s not the only obstacle, though. Las Vegas’ soil is alkaline- and nutrient-poor, and the summer heat is too intense for most typical crops. Many avid gardeners say growing food in Las Vegas is less about finding what thrives than finding what doesn’t immediately die.
Brooks is undaunted. She has dabbled in gardening in her own yard and has sought advice from the area’s leading gardening experts. The first plants — fruit trees and peppers — were planted last week. And more will go in as soon as the weather is right, Brooks says.
“This community needs this,” she says. “Community gardens are everywhere in California and New York and other states. There is no reason why we can’t do it here. We just have to do it a little differently.”