Having identified his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood as a “food desert” – one of many areas devoid of fresh, healthy food – Ron Finley set out to interrupt the cycle of wasting health and wasted resources that such a desert inflicts by transforming his yard into a “food forest.” With his urban gardening initiative, Finley dug up the patchy, unproductive grass covering the sidewalk median in front of his house and replaced it with an abundant garden, replete with all manner of edibles. In the process he unwittingly provoked a mass reconsideration of what it means to be food independent and how best to utilize neglected public space for social good. Finley’s message has ricocheted around the world since he presented it as a TED Talk at the annual convention of big ideas in February. Of course, the appeal of Finley’s insistent message, as he points out, is its simplicity: “Grow your own food.”
Significantly, his initiative has had an effect on local ordinances, which had until now prohibited gardening on the city-owned median without a $400 permit. As a result of his efforts and those of like-minded renegade gardeners, new regulations will permit the cultivation of edibles on sidewalk medians. What’s more, the city has promised to dedicate some of its vacant lots to community gardening. The most important result for Finley, though, is the change in perspective among those in his community. People are seizing the initiative to grow their own food. “More people are coming by to see this garden. There are a couple of gardens popping up in the community that I have nothing to do with. The fact that we had a list of volunteers that probably went from 50 to 500 within a month.”
Finley is far from idle, busy promoting his message of food liberation; nonetheless he has expansive plans for his next endeavor – the Ron Finley Project. He envisions a hub of modified shipping container cafes paired with the gardens that will supply them with fresh ingredients. On par with Finley’s notion of “using public space for the public,” each site will serve as a training center for emerging gardeners and cooks while also serving as a center of community enterprise.
Finley is partnering with the Alternative Apparel Grants Project in awarding $1000 to a community initiative to foster gardening and agriculture in Venice. He recognizes Alternative’s values of empowerment, play, and impact as in accord with his own. “Gardens empower people to take over their lives. Play – that’s what you do in the soil. That’s playing in nature.”
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Photos by Stephen Zeigler