Community gardens and fast food restaurants

The Journal Sentinel’s resident grump Patrick McIlheran apparently thinks community gardeners are seeking to tell people what they can and cannot eat. His argument seems to boil down to this:

“We shouldn’t accept it when our neighbors try deciding what choices we shouldn’t be permitted. If you don’t like fried chicken, don’t eat it. If you think your neighbors shouldn’t like it either, try persuasion. Past that, mind your own business.”

I believe that the very nature of what happened, a community group testifying before the city council that it would be better to build a community garden than yet another fast food restaurant, is a healthy and normal function of democratic debate in our society. It’s a sign of good health that that debate is allowed to occur, as it’s exactly what the democratic process is intended for.

Both P-Mac and his apparent fan appear to have chosen to overlook one critical line from the original JS story that triggered McIlheran’s sudden wave of caring for the impoverished north side communities: “[Sharon] Adams understands the economic rationale for filling a vacant building with a restaurant. ‘But if we don’t change the over-concentration of fast food, it’s going to be very difficult to bring in traditional businesses that better serve the neighborhood,’ she said.”

Sharon Adams, co-founder of the Walnut Way Conservation Corp, the group that coordinates several community vegetable gardens, including one that is directly behind the proposed [fried chicken] restaurant, and supports a neighborhood farmers market,” (h/t JS) said she “understands the economic rationale for filling a vacant building with a restaurant.” Who couldn’t? More jobs are good, even if they would be low-paying and suffer from high turnover. Something is better than nothing.

Yet I believe that Ms. Adams is right to bring this up. Her objection is unlikely to block the entry of a Church’s chicken to the vacant building. However, you can’t sustain a community on a constant diet of fried food and soft drinks filled with high-fructose corn syrup.

Does McIlheran feel threatened by “gardening activists”? It’s not as if we’re going to show up at the new Church’s on opening day waving trowels and hurling worm castings at their doors and windows. Besides, Popeye’s is far better than Church’s. I would object on that and that alone. But I would certainly leave the worm castings at home.

•  •  •

Community gardens are a source of pride, neighborhood beautification, and most important of all, healthy food. From my gardens alone I have harvested at least twenty-five pounds of food, much of which has gone to friends and neighbors. And through that, we made our little south side community that much stronger .

Community gardens are not about us versus them, or the little guy against The Man. They truly are about community. A neighborhood may be a lovely place to see, but if its residents are not in good health, that will impact upon the health of the greater community. Few things can bring people together like food is able to do. If the people in a neighborhood know each other and can work together to grow food for each other — and for themselves — that neighborhood will have a strong basis upon which to grow.

If the people in a neighborhood do not speak to one another, much less know each other, that is not a community. With no options but fattening fast food, the community’s health suffers. The north side needs all the help it can get. Yes, more jobs are good. But in the long run, we’ll be far better off if we train people in healthier eating, and even how to grow their own food.

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.

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