Community Garden? Skepticism of Common Culture in Garden State Suburbia
by Gabriella Gambino
‘Welcome to Mount Olive Township est. 1871’
It was a breezy autumn weekend and I was riding down interstate Route 80, which stretches as far east as Teaneck, New Jersey and as far west as downtown San Francisco. I hit the brakes and turned down the radio as I approached the sharp bend of exit 26. I saw the sign, ‘Welcome to Mount Olive Township est. 1871’, and I smiled. It was good to be home, it was good to be back from university. I rolled down the window and took a deep breath of fresh, farmland air. Toto, I’m not in Newark anymore.
I made my way around the famous, ‘Budd Lake’, and I knew that I was less than five minutes away from my home and almost everything else in town. I decided to take a left at the light instead of a right and I ended up on Old Wolfe Road in front of the preserved farmland and community garden. In my excitement, I glanced at what possibilities of crops were flowering this time of year. I was jolted when I saw no one there and decaying weeds on 10’-x-10’ plots. It looked like a graveyard.
I parked my car in the garden lot and just stared. What happened? Where is everyone? Where are all the usual, seasonal crops? It was unusual and rather frustrating to me because one would think, in a rural farmtown, where the population is 30,000 people of which 70% are white/caucasian, many of the boomer/post-war period and are living as well-off housewives, that there would be plenty of time and money able to go into the usual affairs of the garden. Afterall, it is a money scheme by the town to keep profits in and a racial injustice knowing only the ‘wealthy white’ would have said resources to invest in the garden. 1
I really recalled not only the changed air, but also a changed population. I peered in the window of the car next to me on my way around the lake and I saw an older, white woman with short, blonde hair, drooping creases to her lips and big sunglasses. To my left, a middle-aged, white man, bald under a Raiders cap in a camo gas-guzzling pickup truck. I saw my reflection in the mirror and remembered that I really don’t look like either of them.
After years and years of the ongoing trends of ignorance and racial injustice, I could not continue to turn the other cheek. I decided to do my research and truly see if 1) I am the only person who feels like this and 2) show the people who aren’t from my town and don’t know what it’s like to be a lower-class minority member of an affluent community what that experience is like. I hope to articulate these thoughts here, openly and honestly, fully based on facts. I love my town, I was born and raised here, but to implement this garden as an ‘environmental justice’ and a gift to the entire community is based on a fallacy; I want to prove that there is a hidden perspective that is being drowned out by rose-colored glasses.
To understand my perspective, first one needs to understand the history of the garden and the town and how we became the natural, preserved farmland area of the Garden State. Then, I would like to elaborate on the benefits the garden has on the environment and the community, the positive suggestions for it being implemented to begin with and how it could be a better place for my community. But where there is good, there is bad, and although not highlighted by the town, the negative associations of the garden, such as it’s socioeconomic power, racial bias and environmental consequences, will be highlighted by me.
Where We Started
The town of Budd Lake is one of two parts of the Mount Olive district. The lake itself is what brought the town to fame, for it is known as the largest natural lake in the Garden State. It serves as the head source of the Raritan River’s South Branch, which supports a bog and many natural species that line neighboring wetlands. Although Budd Lake has existed well over two centuries, the garden itself wasn’t instituted until 2013.2
As the community left industrial milling in the 19th century, the status of Budd Lake began rising as a new status quo was to take over; Budd Lake became a local vacation hotspot outside of New York City and brought in more people than ever before. Now mostly deserted, the town’s beach vibe remains via run-down motels and half-hanging gift shop signs. While the town still entertains boaters, fishermen and kayakers, the transition to farmland began in the early 1900s, when the founder’s progeny, generations later, continued inhabiting the town and allotting space to grow fresh foods.3
In 1999, word began to spread around New Jersey that water stewardship and land preservation were becoming rising trends and Mount Olive township fell to no exception when beginning to allocate funding and attention toward the Open Space and Recreation Plan (OSRP). The plan included many goals, including freshwater maintenance, preservation of existing natural areas and open space development into conservatories.4 In 2002, students at the local junior high school worked with their environmental science teacher to propose a community garden to the town council for students to grow plants, learn about their environment and engage in their community:
Three female students came up to me in June of  and said, “Mrs. McCrea, for our community service project we would love to do something that has to do with something outside and an environment and some kind of area.” That is where this began. It has taken shape, we have made proposals both to the Board of Education and to our Principal. We have their support…Creating a community garden such as the one outlined in this presentation goes beyond a need for site improvement and beautification. It provides a relevant and meaningful opportunity to strengthen environmental awareness and to model citizenship through service… The community will enjoy a place to visit for organization sponsored programs, group gathering, educational opportunities as well as for leisure activities such as reading, planting, sketching and wildlife observation.5
Community gardens have become more popularized as a way of encouraging locals to produce crops for their town and their family in an organic manner. The problem with community gardens everywhere is that although inclusive to the community, it’s exclusive only to those who can afford the time or money that goes into farming and gardening.6 The produce in the Mount Olive Community Garden goes to individual families, many of which are white, but also to the Mount Olive food pantry to many families in need, most of which are minorities. Like many small-scale agricultural farmlands, a large amount of crops are wasted when people realize the time, energy and consistency to grow crops. Lucky me, I got to stop for a moment and witness this exact occurrence.
Who We Are
The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, the owners and operators of the garden, consistently show their pride in the preserved land at the Mount Olive Community Garden by exhibiting ‘Gardener Spotlights’ on participants within the garden. After sorting through myriad images and articles of gardeners of caucasian descent, I came upon one particular highlight of a young woman, Afreen Fahad, and her friend Rohana Chase, two local high school students who have dedicated their time and produce to our local food pantry and other local food pantries. In the spotlight article, Afreen is interviewed and states, “Americans have historically proven resilience and self-reliance through the establishment of Victory gardens.” While the article highlights Afreen as an individual gardener and her local contributions, I do wonder what would have been included if Afreen was asked how she felt being one of few people of color in the garden. The author highlights how the garden “would not be successful without all of the talented and generous gardeners who maintain plots there,”, but if that were true, why not allow the garden to be free of charge and include seeds to grow for all community members who choose to partake? Why not expand more land so per household, every person in town has the option to use the garden?7
This past year, the garden has expanded onto even more land to 143, 10’-x-10’ organic plots of crop soil. It was originally 145 plots until two plots became an area for gardeners to leave debris.8 Annually, approximately 80 gardeners cycle through the April-November period where growth in the garden is permitted.9 Since its initial opening in 2013, gardeners grew and donated ‘well over a ton’ of produce to the Mount Olive Food Pantry and other local food pantries, according to the president of The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, Mr. David Epstein. Donations from 2015-2016 increased 150%, from 510 lbs to 750 lbs to the Mount Olive Food Pantry alone. In 2019, donations were at their lowest at 300 lbs and later because of COVID-19 impacting the world this year, donations reached another low at 350 lbs.10 What happened?
I have never seen a person of color in the community garden. I have seen affluent college students from the nearby Centenary University participating in community service. I have seen the same few neighbors, also caucasian wandering the garden to the community water source and back to their plot. But not once have I seen a person of color in the garden. Considering there are two nearby apartment complexes, all of which are majority minority residents, I have never actually seen a person of color in the ‘community’ garden.
For the town council men and women, why not make, what was intended to be for the community, for the community? After speaking with Mr. Epstein, he had forwarded my contact to the Land Conservancy’s Membership & Outreach Manager, Barbara McCloskey. She was kind enough to return to me regarding my questions about the garden facility. When asked ‘What is the most common race of people who rent plots in the community garden?’, she responded, “white”.
Where We Are
At this location, there are currently 200 acres of preserved farmland. Each plot of land requires the following: Annual membership (residents of Mount Olive and Land Conservancymembers) = $35 per plot or $45 for nonresidents and nonmembers and a one-time irrigation fee, to use the community water source well = $30.11 This totals to almost $100, not including the seeds required and individual tools. The garden provides community tools but each individual is expected to respect equipment, which isn’t always the case. Many people who live in the apartment community, or should I say many of the minority community residents, pay a monthly rent between $1,200-$2,200.12 $100 could be part of weekly groceries for a single mother of three that wouldn’t amount to the same produce weight of food. Instead, it goes back into the pockets of town council men and women at a sum of about $5,500 annually for plots that are empty most of the year.
What is dumbfounding is that there are 80 people, every year who pay these fees and yet I saw no one in the garden during a time when one would see gardeners flourishing and crops blossoming. The garden was instituted to be an environmentally-friendly site, where many positive projects would occur, but as the years of operation progress, there is a trend in decreasing donations, which ultimately means less production of crops and plants. So what’s the use of the garden anymore then?
“Community gardening seems like a no-brainer. Participants get together, grow food and create bonds. It has so many benefits, ranging from increased nutrition to saving money to improving the area with green space. At least that’s how community gardens appear to work.” Author MaryJo DiLonardo articulates many pros and cons of community gardening, many of which are directed towards affluent communities where they serve little purpose as compared to inner-city, urban areas where it positively impacts minority community members on a much greater scale. She discusses an interview with researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future where, “[Community gardens] bridge gaps, reduce existing tensions and foster social integration between otherwise segregated groups by bringing people of diverse races/ethnicities, cultures, religions, socioeconomic classes, genders, ages and educational backgrounds together to participate in shared activities with a common purpose,” which is only true in areas with great diversity. Mount Olive, New Jersey is not this.
“A number of case studies have found that [farms and gardens]… have been led by mostly young, white non-residents in predominantly black and/or Latino neighborhoods excluding people of color from participating in or reaping the benefits of such efforts.” Although people of all backgrounds should be considered part of the community, this is sadly not the case. The three young women of color who requested this garden in front of their neighborhood, a marginalized section of the affluent community, felt abled at that time to participate in the garden. As the rise in racial disparity plagues our country, the shift in politics and perception on human rights shifts and causes an illicit response to minorities within my own community. When the community participants are mostly white, it becomes increasingly discouraging to potentially commit to a plot when you may have problems in the garden with other gardeners, even if innocently harvested one’s own produce.13
It’s almost ironic: ‘Preserved farmland’. If one really wanted to preserve the land, the soil would be left untilled, undisrupted from the usual nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus nutrient cycles. This isn’t the only disruption, though the garden is organic, if even one person uses an herbicide or pesticide, the whole garden ecology then becomes impacted. The Land Conservancy also chose to institute newer fencing to keep animals out of the garden, which leads them ultimately to the road nearby where I am consistently seeing them dead on the side of the road because they are isolated from their normal dwellings. For ‘Preserved Farmland’ it seems like yet another contribution to our global climate disaster similarly to the ongoing issues currently with larger-scale agricultural facilities.14
Above is a cartoon, ‘Getting around zoning laws – Fake Farms Agricultural Community’. It was produced by John S. Prichett for the Honolulu Weekly. I have included this image in monochrome print to depict the increase in zoning law cases throughout the United States in mid-2008. People began using their land for commercial or industrial purposes, which resulted in laws implemented to discontinue their preferences in order to prevent oil and such businesses from affecting residential areas.
From the first glance upon this image, I was immediately drawn to the foreground, where lies a sign written, ‘Welcome to Fake Farms Estates Agricultural Community’. In my perspective, the sign was the brightest and one of the larger objects in the image and it reminds me of my own town sign driving in and out of Mount Olive, one of the first things you see coming into town and one of the last things you see going out. I found this to be a particularly humorous moment in connection to my site because 1) it reminded me that although the Community Garden and a few other local farms exist in my town, we are still suburban living, and 2) in the background of the image, one of the cardboard cutouts is facedown, fallen over, revealing its fakeness. I have included this image analysis because my town’s community garden is a ‘fake farm’. Almost every resident (including the residents of the apartments) have small areas of land where crop growth can occur. Why did the town have to exclusively section off land for this use, especially if it isn’t growing anything and is continuing to contribute to expanding climate change?15
Where We Are Going
The sun began to fall and I decided to return home, for my parents have been waiting for my arrival. On my brief drive home, just around the corner, I remembered: things are changing. My family, a biracial, mixed European and Indian family, is becoming less of a minority in this town, things are changing. I pull into my driveway and see both of my parents at the top. I turn the car off and just sit for a moment after a brief conversation with the two of them. I just sit and think about how much things are changing and have been changed.
More and more diverse members of the community are integrating into my neighborhood. A town that was once casinos and parties on small boats has become quiet and peaceful for families to watch their children grow. That garden that was once home to young students has been mostly abandoned as these kids grow out of the town. All that remains is that graveyard that was once a garden.
I definitely feel let down. The garden was installed a few years before I was a junior high school student and not once was the junior high school involved while I was enrolled. So what’s the point? What can I as one individual do? I plan to continue using my backyard garden, as I don’t support a community garden in a town like mine. Most people keep to themselves and I don’t see the point in paying a few, one which I cannot afford because my family is not well-off like others of a more affluent background. I plan on speaking my truth here and hoping others within my community see and understand the difficulties associated with being a person of color in an affluent, suburban neighborhood. I plan on contributing to community gardens in urban areas that truly need the resources and investment. I plan on continuing the tradition of locally growing produce in my territory for my family and community when I bring in my next generation.
Ms. Ryan McCrea still teaches environmental science to the growing children of Mount Olive, the community garden at the head of the South Branch Preserve still remains, and Budd Lake is still the major landmark of the town. What has changed with the coming times is a more inclusive generation of people; The group my age that grew up in racist Mount Olive, New Jersey and is now settling down to have their families and is determined to establish a more community environment within the district. All the racism will slowly fade, as will the need for the garden with increasing use of inside technology. Not many people want to get their hands dirty and the garden will slowly slip into the hands of abyss along with many other historic landmarks of Budd Lake. In the future, I hope I can drive into town, see ‘Welcome to Mount Olive est. 1871’ and know that my family will be truly welcome to continue the farmland culture that I have sought to keep in my own backyard.
Keywords: Community, Food, Class, African-American, Asian-American
1 “Census Profile: Mount Olive Township, Morris County, NJ.” Census Reporter. https://censusreporter.org/profiles/06000US3402749080-mount-olive-township-morris-county-nj/.
2 “Budd Lake, New Jersey.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, October 19, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budd_Lake,_New_Jersey.
4 new_view_media. Online Local Community News for New Jersey, September 3, 2019. https://www.mypaperonline.com/in-mt-olive-open-space-development-complements-historic-preservation.html.
5 “Township Council Minutes.” Mount Olive NJ, April 9, 2002. https://www.mountolivetwpnj.org/township-council/minutes/township-council-minutes-53.
8 Interview via email. McCloskey, Barbara, Membership & Outreach Manager, The Land Conservancy of New Jersey. December 2020.
9 MOpantry. Mount Olive Food Pantry, Mount Olive Community Garden. November 26, 2016. http://www.mountolivepantry.org/spotlight/mount-olive-community-garden/.
10 Interview via phone call. Epstein, David, President, The Land Conservancy of New Jersey. December 2020
12 “Kings Village.” https://www.apartments.com/kings-village-budd-lake-nj/fwdb88t/.
13 DiLonardo, Mary Jo. “How Community Gardens Help (And Even Hurt).” Treehugger. https://www.treehugger.com/how-community-gardens-help-and-even-hurt-4863415.
14 Conradin, Katharina. “The Nutrient Cycle.” SSWM, June 29, 2019. https://sswm.info/arctic-wash/module-2-environment-pollution-levels-implications/further-resources-environment-and/the-nutrient-cycle.
15 Pritchett, John S. “Getting around Zoning Laws – Fake Farms Agricultural Community.” Land use cartoon, agricultural land zoning, fake farms cartoon, zoning laws, luxury housing development, political cartoon, Honolulu Weekly Pritchett editorial cartoon. https://www.pritchettcartoons.com/farm2.htm.