Group gardens are oases in Houston’s meals wasteland

Areas known as “food deserts” are everywhere in Houston, typically in low-income neighborhoods where access to supermarkets is as scarce as water in the desert. According to the UT Health Science Center in Houston, large parts of the city are considered a food wasteland.

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More than 500,000 Houstonians live in one, according to KPRC’s Sofia Ojeda.

Many of these areas could also be referred to as “food swamps,” where fast food and unhealthy options from grocery stores are more readily available than an HEB, Kroger, or Whole Foods.

One solution: the community garden.

Dozens of these gardens can be found across Houston, offering fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price – and probably healthier than what you’d find in the grocery store, according to Lettice Live founder Karena Poke.

Karena Poke, founder and owner of Lettuce Live, says community gardens are a way for families to save money on products.

Courtesy Karena Poke

They offer more than just the fruits of gardening. Volunteers often help manage the land and grow crops, which is beneficial for both the community and the volunteers themselves.

They also run workshops where people learn how to grow edible gardens in their own four walls. This is vital for many vulnerable communities where transportation, accessibility and affordability of fresh food are scarce.

“I think if you want to take control of your health it starts with growing your own food,” Poke said. “Although lettuce is alive, we believe in growing food, growing communities, and growing healthy people.”

Lettuce Live is a community garden in Missouri City – just a few miles from one of the largest food deserts in southwest Houston.

Related: Meet Ivy Walls, a young farmer who is fighting food insecurity with her own community garden in Sunnyside.

Connected: Meet Ivy Walls, a young farmer who is fighting food insecurity in Sunnyside with her own community garden.

Ivy walls

“Our mission is to inspire more people to grow their own food,” said Poke. “That’s number one.”

Poke founded Lettuce Live in 2012 to address the shortage of healthy food in Memphis. Since then, she has moved herself and her harvest to Houston to serve the community.

The garden lost almost all of its harvest during the February freeze, Poke said. Now in May, lush vegetable, fruit, and even a peach trees that have ripened in the cold grace the half-acre sight in Buffalo Run Park.

At prices less than grocery stores, food from community gardens is healthier because it is cut from the vine on the day of purchase, Poke said. This helps maintain a level of nutrition that shipped food cannot guarantee.

Poke also sees community gardens as a way for people to save money.

“If you have a steady income (buying from a community garden) it will make all the difference in your paycheck at the end of the day,” she said. “You didn’t have to buy onions, peppers or beans because you have them.”

Volunteers run the show at Lettuce Live.

Volunteers run the show at Lettuce Live.

Courtesy of Lettuce Live

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in the community garden has increased across the city. Poke said more and more people, young and old, are flocking to the gardens to pass the time.

While before 2020 they had single-digit volunteers on average every week, nearly two dozen come every Wednesday and Saturday to help.

“It’s such a beautiful place,” Poke said of her garden. “You can hear laughing and talking and people looking forward to seeing you again.”

Other community gardens may accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, including Pokes Missouri City Garden. That means more people who need healthier foods in food deserts are getting healthier foods from these gardens.

Nothing but a major policy change to combat food redlining in Houston will solve the food wasteland problem. But community gardens are a much needed step in providing immediate relief to those in need.

Houston has many city-sponsored community gardens, and dozens of others are located in Harris County and beyond.

Have you ever volunteered in a community garden? Let me know on Twitter: @jayrjordan.

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