In South Central Los Angeles, across the street from the new metro system on Exposition Boulevard, is an urban garden owned by Ron Finley. Finley, also known as the “Gangster Gardener”, founded The Ron Finley Project to “transform food deserts into food sanctuaries.”
Finley, who has been gardening since he was a kid, says he views gardening as a source of freedom because it is an “empowering practice to grow your own food.”
“Everyone should at least have the potential to cultivate their own food,” he says, “cook their own food, and that to me is a form of freedom.”
South Central LA, a predominantly low income and Black and Brown community, is considered a food desert. As defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, food deserts are areas where “a substantial number or proportion of the population has low access to supermarkets or grocery stores.”
Food deserts have a history of negatively impacting the health of local community members. Food deserts are often identified through the overwhelming presence of fast-food chains and liquor stores rather than grocery stores and other markets with fresh produce.
These neighborhoods retain higher obesity rates than their more affluent neighbors that have greater access to fresh food. For example, South Central LA is only a few miles south of Beverly Hills and other affluent neighborhoods, but the difference in fresh produce accessibility and overall health is astounding.
According to data collected by the LA County Department of Public Health, in 2017 the percentage of children in West LA, which includes Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Malibu, that consume at least one soda or sweetened drink a day is 14.3%, whereas in South LA the percentage is 51.6%. Additionally in West LA, 10% of adults reported their health to be fair or poor, whereas 30.6% of adults in South LA considered their health to be fair or poor.
Urban and community gardens such as Finley’s actively fight against this.
Furthermore, not only do community gardens work to rectify the lack of fresh food in urban communities, but they also aid in our fight against climate change. Studies show that community and urban gardens are an efficient way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. According to the Climate Action Business Association, transportation of freshly grown food from farms to grocery outlets or people’s homes make up a large part of carbon emissions in agriculture. Growing your own food reduces those carbon emissions significantly.
Additionally, gardening is considered to have a great impact in terms of carbon sequestering. Carbon sequestering occurs when plants capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is a long-term solution to climate change because when plants die, the carbon is still stored in the soil rather than being trapped in the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. No-till gardening, specifically, helps with this because the soil in the yard is less likely to be disturbed compared to yards and farms that practice tillage.
Sunflowers, Finley’s favorite plant to grow because of their many uses, also have environmental benefits. In addition to producing edible seeds, sunflowers remediate the soil, meaning they can remove contaminants. Studies have shown a link between rising global temperatures and a higher concentration of arsenic in soil. However, plants like sunflowers can remove these toxins from our soil.
Through his project, Finley has started and inspired many gardens around LA and the world. He has a MasterClass portal available online that teaches viewers how to begin their own gardens. He says he doesn’t have an “end goal” to his project. “Is there an end goal to air? An end goal to life? Everyone deserves a healthy life and the resources to have a healthy life,” said Finley.
Finley’s garden, decorated with graffitied walls and Crenshaw and 110 Freeway signs, show his pride and love for his community. Despite the lack of fresh produce available in his communities and other communities alike, Finley hopes his project can enact change through educating his neighbors and empowering them to take a stand against food deserts.