From Garbage to Gardens: City Gardens for the Homeless

For the homeless, nutritious food is hard to come by. Rodale Press and Rodale Institute Research Center initiated city gardening projects in cooperation with homeless centers in New York City in 1992, and Washington, D.C, in 1993. The goals were to improve nutrition, boost self-esteem and develop job skills of homeless clients.

One year later, what was a rooftop covered with trash and broken glass in midtown Manhattan is a garden the size of a tennis court filled with herbs and vegetables. Homeless clients from the Grand Central Partnership Center's work-placement program learn how to care for the plants.

In Washington, D.C., a flourishing organic garden of vegetables, flowers and herbs blossoms within sight of the Capitol Dome on a 3,500-square-foot site provided by the National Park Service. The D.C. garden is maintained by clients from a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program called Clean and Sober Streets.

A Good Start

Rodale Press provided materials to set up the gardens; Institute staff provided seedlings and ongoing technical training to homeless clients working with the project. After one year, the gardens have changed the lives of four homeless clients. Less than two years ago, Joseph Andrews was sleeping in cardboard boxes and on park benches in New York. Through the project, Andrews acquired gardening skills, which led to a job with the Grand Central Partnership Center to work on two rooftop gardens. The happy story continues. Andrews recently married another homeless client, Yolanda, and the two moved into their own apartment in Queens, New York.

Steven Wade, a client of Clean and Sober Streets in Washington, D.C. never intended to garden until he saw his friend, David Harvey, working in the group's garden and lent a hand. Now he says the garden has changed his outlook on life. "It brought out inner feelings that I thought I never had and it's breaking down my tough exterior." Wade's work in the garden is voluntary. The encouragement he gets from passersby makes the hard work worthwhile. In particular Wade remembers one steamy D.C. afternoon when a woman passing by remarked on the beautiful garden. Wade thanked her for the compliment and she continued on. Moments later she turned back, walked up to him and said, "No, thank you."


The Rodale city gardens were established to give homeless participants the opportunity to eat healthy food. This has been accomplished in D.C., but not in New York. In New York, the produce from the gardens is sold to the public. It is not consumed in the shelter, partly because the kitchen in the shelter is designed to accomodate processed foods, but also because the limited volume produced does not contribute significantly to the kitchen, which feeds 300 people three times per day

The D.C. garden produces a larger volume of vegetables. This food is used in the Clean and Sober Streets kitchen, which feeds 40 people. This summer, Harvey and Wade harvested 200 pounds of beans as well as squash, zucchini, tomatoes and other vegetables. The gardeners found that those who eat in the kitchen don't like squash and zucchini as much as they like greens and okra, which the gardeners will plant next year.

In New York, the gardeners sell their produce in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, every Friday. The group makes as much as $80 a day. This profit is returned to the Grand Central Partnership's Pathway to Employment program, which pays the gardeners' stipends.

Since homeless gardeners do not directly receive the proceeds from the sales, their incentive to participate in the program is limited. Larry Elman of the Green Guerrillas, who works with the New York gardeners, points out that while middle-class Americans may think that the aesthetic pleasure of working in a garden is reward enough, the New York homeless may not be driven by the same values and therefore will be reluctant to work without financial compensation.

Looking for Local Leadership

Because the program seeks to prepare clients for jobs outside of the centers, the best gardeners will inevitably move on. The homeless population that visits the centers is transitory, and it is difficult to find committed gardeners. Building an institutional structure that encourages gardeners to train their own replacements will take time.

At this point Joseph and Yolanda Andrews maintain the New York garden alone. They discourage visits from other homeless clients, because "they put out their cigarettes in the containers and sometimes sleep up on the roof." The rooftop garden has a fence around it which was originally designed for a playground, and now protects the plants from theft and vandalism. Few people go up to the garden. In D.C., the garden occupies an open space in a busy intersection; people stop by all the time. There has been no vandalism.

Until now, a very limited number of homeless people have had the chance to work on the gardens. This is due in part to program design, security measures and the lack of incentive. In Washington, there is potential for increased participation.

Now that the gardens are established, they must adapt to their local conditions. Jackie Hurley, Garden Project Manager and Corporate Communications Manager at Rodale Press, encourages project participants to make decisions. The D.C. garden is changing and adapting to its surroundings, but somehow the role of decision making has not been successfully transferred to the New York garden. To make a project sustainable, the initiators often must relinquish their leadership to local participants and institutions. In Steven Wade's words, "If I have no say-so, I'll back out. I won't feel no selfworth."

Gardeners and administrators in New York and Washington, D.C. are full of ideas for improvements. Frank Sciaza, Director of the Grand Central Partnership Center, suggests asking neighborhood restaurants to sponsor one or two containers in the garden. Restaurant owners could decide what crops to grow and use them in their restaurant. Alternatively, planting all the containers with basil and selling it to local restaurants and at farmer's markets could earn money for the Center.

In Washington, D.C., gardeners and administrators have already begun making decisions based on what they have learned from the project to date. They plan to hold gardening workshops next spring and to start selling some of their crops at a farmer's market, using the money they earn as a stipend for the gardeners.

What Next?

If these projects are to last or even expand, three problems remain: participation, land and long-term goals. To bring in more participants, the projects need to increase incentives. This probably means small incomes for garden workers, such as the one Joseph Andrews receives in New York. In New York, legislative restrictions on the use of rooftops will make it difficult for the Grand Central Partnership to expand its original garden. Groups in D.C. and New York (such as the Green Guerrillas) are working with city planners to find small parcels that can be used for short- or long-term gardening projects. Finally, project coordinators may need to re-evaluate their goals. If urban gardening is to catch on, it must be economically viable and replicable, it will have to bring in money for the Center, perhaps to the detriment of the original goal of improving nutrition. Low-income gardeners are likely to be interested in selling their produce to restaurants or at farmer's markets rather than donating food to homeless shelters. More Gardens? The flourishing gardens are an example of a program that can work: Joseph Andrews and other homeless gardeners are proof. Sandy Beldon, Senior Vice President of Rodale Press, provided initial leadership for the gardens project and hopes to inspire other companies to sponsor similar city gardens. He also hopes that members of Congress who pass by the D.C. garden will carry the idea back to their home districts. Project coordinators are now writing a "how-to" manual for corporations and public- and private-sector groups that want to sponsor similar garden projects in their areas.


Sanford T. Beldon
Senior Vice President
Rodale Press
33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098, USA.
Fax: (215) 967-8963

Larry Elman
Green Guerrillas
New York, New York.
Tel: (212) 674-8124

Deborah Fialka
1959 Rockingham St.
McLean, VA 22101, USA.
Tel: 1-800-476-8038