A Complex Solution
The nonprofit world is a mixed conglomeration of scattered players: large, publicly-funded foundations research problems and provide substantive grants to other organizations; community foundations pool resources to sustain local nonprofits; numerous entrepreneurial organizations struggle for resources as they provide niche services; and local governments navigate the social-services territory as they work alongside their non-governmental counterparts. In some ways the public sector lags behind the private sector in fostering innovative, non-traditional collaboration: grantmakers frequently impose a bureaucratic, slow-moving proposal process in place of a forward-thinking, collaborative approach, while many nonprofits are so focused on operations and development that they fail to understand how they fit into the larger public ecosystem.
Solutionbank.org is an online idea-sharing platform for world-changing individuals. It gathers and synthesizes practices from a wide array of organizations, connecting information along similar topics to enable users to find and adopt practices from others. The following article illustrates Solutionbank’s ability to synthesize ideas by examining best practices in community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiatives.
CSA is an interesting niche topic in the field of community development, composed of hundreds of isolated local initiatives spread throughout the United States. After examining over 100 of these organizations, we selected 40 unique solutions to construct a comprehensive picture of a financially-sustainable CSA program that provides employment opportunities, improves the food security of a community, enhances nutritional education curricula of local schools, and provides meaningful social experiences for patrons. This construct is largely theoretical, but each individual component of the picture is derived from a real practice introduced by a CSA organization somewhere in the world.
We hope that by providing a comprehensive knowledge base and highlighting similarities, we can transform the public sector by turning isolated players into a cohesive community. Users will contribute to a comprehensive knowledge base that will enable meta-analysis to see which practices are more commonplace and which ones have not been widely shared. Leaders can then reach out to organizations and guide them to peers who possess solutions to their problems.
A Scattered Playing Field
CSA initiatives contain an assortment of organizations from professional, well-funded institutions and conservation societies, to shoestring-financed grassroots activities.
Botanical gardens – usually well-funded, established community institutions. Many focus on the study and preservation of the environment.
Community gardens – grassroots activities usually sponsored by civic or nonprofit organizations. Most focus on the proliferation of vegetable gardens.
Food Banks – common public service organizations that gather surplus food and distribute it to needy local residents.
Elementary/Secondary Schools – teach environmental and nutritional principles to youth and teens.
Farmer’s Markets – provide locally produced food to community residents.
City Governments – provide utilities and social services to citizens.
A Variety of Goals
Sustainable Funding – many CSA’s are finding innovative ways to secure consistent sources of program funding. The Alaska Botanical Garden became more financially sustainable by creating a retail nursery to meet the demand for local plants. The Verde Community Garden, like many community gardens, finances its operations by selling produce to local markets. Some gardens generate fee-for-service income by monetizing activities that relieve operational burdens of other organizations: for example, the Seattle Tilth Soil Builder program reduces city waste disposal costs by teaching composting methods to local residents, and receives funding from the city.
Evidence shows that cities have a financial incentive to fund and maintain community gardens: a 2008 study found that the establishment of community gardens on vacant public land significantly increased property values, especially in poor urban areas. While this relationship is less direct than an immediate reduction in specific program costs, it may still be an effective selling point for individuals seeking local government support.
Employment – some community gardens utilize their daily operations to create employment-training programs. For example, the Homeless Garden Project teaches entrepreneurial skills to local homeless by helping them create small produce businesses, while the Seattle Youth Garden takes a similar approach to teach marketing principles to teenagers. Community gardening initiatives can even be used to create more substantial employment opportunities: for example, the Grow Food Northampton initiative enabled a city government to purchase land and lease it to farmers to supply produce for local farmers’ markets. Gardening can also be used for rehabilitative therapy: the Poly Garden in southern India provides life skills education to mentally disabled inpatients through their garden and orchard facilities.
Garden Proliferation – Most gardening organizations have some program aimed at inducing visitors and patrons to grow their own gardens. Many low-income urban areas have fewer food options than middle-class neighborhoods, prompting the cultivation of small kitchen gardens and larger neighborhood gardens in public spaces. Many local residents can benefit from instruction in basic gardening methods: The Mino Aki Garden ensures year-round operations by offering instructional classes during the off-season, and the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum showcases crops that are especially suited to the immediate region. In addition to instruction, organizations can foster grassroots gardening simply by providing a space to do it: for example, St. John’s Organic Community Garden in Phoenixville, PA provides free garden plots for any interested local residents, and the Camden Children’s Garden works with local government to establish community garden plots on vacant city land.
Food Security – One of the most common operational goals of a community gardening initiative is to provide inexpensive, healthy food to local residents. For example, the Food Forward Initiative provides fresh produce to food banks by picking the fruit from local landscaping trees (The relationship can also point the other way: the Greater Lansing Food Bank actually sponsors and assists in the creation of kitchen and community gardens.) Cowfiles, an international nonprofit, helps low-income residents of Lesotho to build small keyhole gardens (a type of kitchen garden) to add vegetables to their diets. Community gardens can also be used to supply vegetables not commonly seen in grocery stores. For example, the Danny Woo Garden provides public plots for elderly residents of an Asian-American neighborhood to grow popular Asian crops, and the Winnemucca Community Garden ensures a variety of crops and designs by promoting themed gardens among its community plots.
Education – Community Agriculture organizations serve as effective educational resources for teaching nutritional and environmental principles to people of all ages. Community gardens are also shown to foster civic participation through an increased sense of stewardship over one’s neighborhood. Community gardens frequently host educational events: the 7th Street Garden in Washington, DC provides nutrition classes to low-income neighborhood residents, while the Pentridge Children’s Garden in Philadelphia, PA teaches lessons on cooking and healthy eating to area youth. Botanical gardens often make their resources available to research institutions and the general public: for example, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden in Claremont, CA promotes scholarship on the local environment by cultivating area plants for graduate research institutions. CSA can also be used to bolster the curricula of local schools: the Berkeley Unified School District offers cooking and nutrition classes for local students, while the Washington Youth Garden prepares two-to four-week curricula that combine classroom instruction in local schools with interactive visits to the garden facilities.
This brief article highlights only a few of the many innovative practices introduced by various CSA initiatives across the world. This meta-analysis approach yields a comprehensive picture of ways in which a community of food-conscious organizations can become a collaborative, financially self-sustaining force for good. Unfortunately, the gathering of these ideas is still a very manual process, but by utilizing new technology we can build web-based tools that assimilate all the ideas and practices of a diverse community of humanitarians and synthesize them into one great whole.
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[image credit: NYC Parks & Recreation]