What Is It?

The People’s Garden Initiative was instituted in 2009 by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to honor the original principles of the USDA: “the importance of food to sustain people and bring communities together.” The original People’s Garden was only in Washington, D.C., and remains open to the public. Since the People’s Garden Initiative expanded nationwide in 2022, more than 1,600 public gardens have taken the opportunity to register. Registered gardens receive benefits such as a webinar series about starting and maintaining a garden that benefits the public.

Requirements to register as a People’s Garden include that the garden:

  • Benefits the community
  • Are a collaborative effort, working with local and federal organizations to better the community
  • Incorporates conservation management practices
  • Educates the public

The decision to revitalize the People’s Garden Initiative in 2022 was inspired by the USDA’s mission to increase equitable access to safe and healthy food, to create and preserve local food systems, and to create more climate resiliency. The project is especially important in urban settings that are food deserts or swamps (“areas with a higher density of fast food… rather than healthy food options”), heat islands, and/or lack community space. The empowering act of growing one’s own food in an urban setting can inspire many other positive changes, such as improved diet, reducing local food insecurity, and allowing residents to grow food that is culturally relevant.

 Deputy Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Gloria Montaño Greene, in an interview with Civil Eats, discussed the fact that the renewal of the People’s Garden Initiative is helping the USDA work toward its goals of sustainability, climate resiliency, and systemic agricultural changes by “meeting people where they are” and allowing communities to “learn these sustainable practices for soil health or other mitigation efforts.”

The People’s Garden Initiative in NYC

In 2022, three of New York City’s existing gardens were selected to be registered as People’s Gardens. In the Bronx, the Garden of Happiness and Taqwa Community Farm were chosen. The third was the Urban Soils Institute on Governors Island. Each is designated one of the country’s 17 Urban Hubs that work with local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) representatives to ensure that the goals of the gardens – to grow food, educate, and conserve natural resources while building climate resiliency and fighting food insecurity – are being met.

The Garden of Happiness opened in 1988 under Operation GreenThumb under the auspices of the NYC Parks Department. Since its genesis, it has been a place where children and adults gather to be educated about agriculture, and community initiatives are discussed and planned. Run by Karen Washington, who helped found it in 1988, the Garden of Happiness was a beacon throughout the pandemic for providing fresh food and a place for safe gathering. Since becoming a registered People’s Garden, it  has worked with Natural Resources Conservation Service employees, the New York Botanical Garden, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, and the Xerces Society to clean out waste, weed raised beds, and plant native species to provide for pollinators. The garden has also received funding for community education and to further their existing programs while increasing conservation efforts. Of the Initiative, Karen Washington said “This is what these gardens are all about. Planting the seed, bringing community together, and nurturing the next generation.”

Taqwa Community Farm was opened in 1992 by Abu Talib, a community member with experience in farming and sharecropping, and other local community members. Within eight years, the garden was full of food and pollinator plants.  Families can receive small plots within the garden to grow their own food or other plants. In addition, the garden annually produces roughly 10,000 pounds of food that is sold and donated via their “Grow and Give” program. Since its designation as a People’s Garden in 2022, it has worked with the same organizations as the Garden of Happiness to increase their already-massive positive impact on the surrounding community.

The Urban Soils Institute on Governors Island operates under the philosophy that all cities must “build soils and the life they support into all urban development going forward and to incorporate the development of urban soils into the legacy landscapes that urban centers hope to preserve and sustain.” The Institute educates about how the power of soils to help mitigate the effects of climate change, especially in urban areas, is underappreciated and underutilized. The stated mission of the Institute is “to advance the understanding and promote sustainable use of urban soils through research, education, conservation, restoration, and collaboration.” Each of these goals is also a requirement for registration as a People’s Garden.

In 2023, the USDA and Just Food awarded up to $10,000 to many other New York City community gardens. In an episode of the podcast Fields, USDA Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, Urban Agriculture Specialist Nina Bhattacharyya and NY State Conservationist Blake Glover discussed the fact that the People’s Garden Initiative provides funding for upgrading existing urban farms, which in turn increases output and conservation efforts, allowing communities to better support themselves and their environments.

Related Articles

Subscribe To Weekly NYC Food Policy Watch Newsletter
Subscribe to our weekly email newsletter today to receive updates on the latest news, reports and event information
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will never be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.