The inequities in access to affordable healthy and fresh foods have been the root cause of many severe illnesses, high rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes in lower-income neighborhoods of color across the country.
According to The State of Obesity’s Special Report, "8% of African-American residents lived in areas with one or more supermarkets, compared with 31% of white residents." The staggering stats don’t end there.
"The products most frequently marketed to African-Americans are high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages.
Billboards and other forms of outdoor advertisements, which often promote foods of low nutritional value, are 13 times denser in predominantly African-American neighborhoods than white neighborhoods."
It’s evident that there is a two-tiered food system in America that has poor African-Americans dying younger from diet-related diseases than wealthy whites. But Los Angeles native Ron Finley, better known by his pseudonym Gangsta Gardener, had had enough of driving 45 minutes outside of his neighborhood to find fresh fruits and vegetables.
The former fashion designer, whose clothes were sold at Saks and Neiman Marcus, took it upon himself to grow his own vegetables and fruits right in his own yard after attending a gardening class in 2010.
Gardening to fight racism and food inequality
In a Fortune piece penned by Finley, he describes the less than savory food choices available in his neighborhood as the catalyst for his green thumb.
"I remember going to a store in South Central L.A. and picking up some tomatoes. The stickers on them read: 'Coated with shellac.'
I thought to myself: 'Isn’t that the stuff we used to coat wood in my high school woodshop? Why is it on these tomatoes?' That’s when it really hit me."
Food inequality, though not mentioned enough in the larger conversation about structural racism in this country, is as important to rally against as police brutality. Black health and food injustice can not be addressed as a sidebar to the fight against systematic racism in this country. The two are intrinsically linked.
Finley, who wanted healthy food options for his neighbors and his family, planted a garden in the 150-foot-long parkway space between the curb and the sidewalk in front of his house. Kale, pomegranates, sunflowers, and banana trees thrived in his improvised garden.
He lent his new gardening skills to residents around the neighborhood helping them plant gardens in their yards.
"When people saw this food literally growing along their streets, they began to see the possibilities. That same year, I founded a group with likeminded people who wanted to grow and share their own food and show others how to do it.
It’s a simple concept: If food is not there, put it there! It’s our responsibility – if we want to change our neighborhoods, it has to come from within."
A welcomed benefit to planting his own food was the ecosystem he created. Soon after, humming birds and butterflies were flying all over the garden. Finley had fashioned a relatively easy and cheap way to bring healthy food into his neighborhood, which he describes as a "food prison," but the City of Los Angeles wasn’t on board with Finley’s guerrilla gardening tactics.
He was fined for gardening without a permit.
"No one was being cited for the discarded old toilets, couches and used condoms on the street – but I got a citation for bringing nature, beauty, pride, art, and a sense of peace and calm to the neighborhood. It just made no sense."
He refused to pay the fine and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Turning 'food deserts' into 'food forests'
A subsequent petition, demanding that Finley be allowed to grow food in his neighborhood, put a spotlight on Finley’s cause and won him supporters, including some in the L.A. City Council. Finley’s defiance paid off.
In 2013, the city council voted to change the law to allow curbside gardening in L.A thanks to Finley’s work advocating for guerilla gardeners right to feed themselves.
The Gangsta Gardener’s fight to beautify his surroundings and improve the food supply in South Central caught the attention of TED conference. Finley held a TED Talk in 2013 where he broke down food injustice, the importance of a gardening movement, and the tools to eating healthy. It's been watched by more than 3 million people.
He also shared his dream of turning "food deserts" around the world into sustainable "food forests."
In a Los Angeles Times interview, the Gangsta Gardner credited his inspiration to waking up in the morning and says his mission is bigger than food.
"It kinda ain’t about food; it’s about food justice. If you aren’t eating healthy, nutritious, vibrant food, how’s anything in you gonna grow?"
His parkway garden has grown into an Olympic-sized swimming pool garden that receives daily visitors from his neighbors, Bette Midler to a bus full of Harvard students eager to witness pomegranate trees, sweet potato vines, a plum tree, blackberries, sugar cane, artichokes, almond and apple tree, and celery, rosemary and mint growing in an urban oasis in South Central, L.A.