This past year I helped to write and execute a project promoting urban gardening in the small town of Nagarote. Around the world, kitchen or community gardens are popular activities for organizations and non-profits. The tangible benefits from a garden are numerous – a healthier lifestyle, some exercise and fresh food, and maybe even some saved income or extra earned income from the produce you can grow. The intangible benefits are even more numerous and also much discussed and debated in the academic and development worlds – an increased connection to place, spiritual healing and development, cultivating caring for the environment and natural world, and connections to the surrounding community and among neighbors. For many of us, ornamental or vegetable gardening is a fun pastime or hobby that we enjoy but don’t spend much time analyzing. I can’t really explain why it is that every place I have lived in I have planted something, it just doesn’t feel like home until I do.
For non-profits, accessing funding requires the justification of a project in tangible, or measurable, terms. Although all parties involved in our project in Nagarote were enthusiastic about the concept of an urban gardening project, as we developed the proposal it became clear that our reasons for supporting gardening varied. While we all agreed that food security was the main objective, one organization was particularly interested in the community building aspects of gardening, while another wanted the project to focus on the socio-economic benefits: how to maximize how much a family could save or make by consuming or selling the produce from a kitchen garden. We tried to work in everyone’s objectives, and therefore the resulting project became rather complicated to measure, at the expense of the participants time answering surveys and our team’s time compiling them.
Theoretically, a kitchen garden can serve all these roles, and more, for a family! Why not? Many professionals use various aspects of gardening to propel their work. Landscape architects plan gardens around their intended function, anthropologists study the social dynamics of gardens and green space, and community organizations celebrate the harvest with neighborhood gardening events. Measuring the concrete impact of a garden in more than one of these functions, however, is a whole other piece of work. The survey we created for the base line study with the ten participating families drew some laughs, smiles, and more than a few confused looks. How much do you spend weekly on vegetables for your family? What vegetables do you buy most frequently? How many tomatoes a week? I have never felt so pathetically ridiculous as I did asking these Nicaraguans questions I could never have answered myself – how many people do you know separate out their grocery bills by basic grains, vegetables, and other?? I knew that it was important for the structure of the project to go through with all the impact evaluation work, but at the same time it was hard not to feel indignant about the objective. Why is it fine for us to garden because we just like to, but Nicaraguans need to prove socio-economic gains to garner our support?
At end of the project we conducted another survey and compiled the data to see whether our objectives had been met and learn how the project could be improved upon. As can be expected, the results were limited and statistically questionable due to the extremely small participant base (only ten families). In general, there was much frustration around the hoops and paperwork involved with measuring the impact of our justified gardening work. However, there were some exciting conclusions that we could draw from our baseline study and the final survey. Every one of the families who participated said they intended to continue gardening. Instead of being a nuisance as we were wary of, every family enjoyed the weekly visits from technicians, and requested that they continue even if there was no funding for more supplies! Only one of ten participants was interested in selling anything from their garden. And perhaps the most surprising to us was a question that tried to get to the heart of the reason for gardening. We asked the participants to characterize their experience with their garden and gave them five choices: hobby, investment, therapy, fun, or work. They could check as many as they felt applied. The most frequent answer: Investment. The second most frequent: Therapy. The least frequent: Work. Although all of the workshops focused on technical aspects of gardening, and the project was developed to address food and economic security, it seems that many of the participants found an unexpected deeper personal benefit from their experience. And I’ll admit, after feeling somewhat useless computing an semi-fictional value of produce and offset cost of weekly groceries, the answers to that question made me feel a whole lot better about the project.