Food insecurity is an important problem in the U.S. and globally.
Home gardens are an important, underutilized resource for addressing food insecurity.
Geo Garden Club is designing and implementing collaborative technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of home gardeners.
Food security, home gardens, and GGC
Food security, as defined by the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security, means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life. In the coming decades, food security will become an increasingly critical issue due to population growth in combination with climate change, the latter of which which will negatively impact agricultural water availability, arable land availability, and the diversity and distribution of agricultural plant, insect, and animal species (Kwasek, 2012).
Food insecurity is not only an issue for the distant future or for underdeveloped countries. In 2019, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, equating to over 38 million Americans, including almost 12 million children (Coleman-Jensen, 2019).
(Galhenia et al, 2013) provides evidence that home gardens can improve food security: "... Benefits of home gardens include enhancing food and nutritional security in many socio-economic and political situations, improving family health and human capacity, empowering women, promoting social justice and equity, and preserving indigenous knowledge and culture." In addition, "the most fundamental social benefit of home gardens stems from their direct contributions to household food security by increasing availability, accessibility, and utilization of food products". According to (Rai, 2020), home gardens can also strengthen numerous ecosystem serviecs, including plant biodiversity, microclimate, water runoff, urban soil restoration, and water quality. Finally, home gardens can play a significant role in combatting "food deserts", areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food (Palar et al., 2019).
Community gardens are similar to home gardens in scale and the types of food products grown, but community gardens create and foster "communities of practice" with significant health consequences: In a study by (Alaimo et al, 2008), community gardeners consumed fruits and vegetables 5.7 times per day, compared with home gardeners (4.6 times per day) and nongardeners (3.9 times per day). Moreover, 56% of community gardeners met national recommendations to consume fruits and vegetables at least 5 times per day, compared with 37% of home gardeners and 25% of nongardeners.
A fundamental goal of Geo Garden Club (GGC) is to address food insecurity by increasing: (a) the numbers of home gardens (and home gardeners), (b) the productivity of home gardens, and (c) the ability of home gardens to improve human health. To accomplish this, we are designing technology to not just facilitate home garden planning and implementation, but also to facilitate the creation of local "communities of practice" for home gardening. If successful, GGC home gardeners will (among other things) reap the health benefits currently enjoyed by community gardeners.
Our target demographic: the "serious" gardener
We view food production as a spectrum of activities and levels of commitment, as shown in the following diagram:
On the far left side are "recreational" gardeners. These are people who are either just getting into gardening, and/or are relatively uncommitted to gardening. There are a variety of technologies (websites and applications) oriented to the needs of "recreational" gardeners.
On the right side are "farmers": those who make most or all of their living from growing food. Unlike gardeners, farmers cannot operate at a loss. There are also a variety of technologies available to support the needs of small scale farmers (i.e. "urban agriculture") as well as large scale farmers ("industrial agriculture").
We call our target demographic the "serious gardener": a gardener who hopes to grow significant amounts of food, to improve their garden on a season-by-season basis, and who is open to sharing their experiences with other gardeners and learning from other gardener's experiences. A serious gardener is not necessarily an "expert" gardener. In fact, one can be both a serious gardener and an absolute beginner! Serious gardeners are defined by intent, not skill level.
Improving a garden from year to year has multiple facets, including:
- Better choice of plant varietals to improve yield or pest/environmental resistance
- Better planning of bed contents (soil/amendments and plant varietals) and sequencing of planting to improve outcomes (yield, flavor, timing of harvest, reduced pests, etc.)
- Better use of resources (i.e. growing season, bed size, water, nutrients)
There are two basic approaches used by a serious gardener to improve their garden:
Individual experimentation and record keeping. A serious gardener tries to learn from their experience over multiple growing seasons. They may keep informal records to provide a more data-driven approach to improvement.
Collective interaction with a "community of practice". Most serious gardeners develop some sort of informal community of fellow-minded gardeners to whom they discuss issues and share experiences in hopes of improving their collective garden experiences. Traditionally, these communities of practice took the form of garden clubs, such as the Garden Club of America. More recently, communities of practice can take the form of local Facebook groups, or even global forums like the Reddit r/vegetablegardening forum. Interaction with others can also increase the enjoyment of gardening and provides motivation.
Interestingly, this classification scheme reveals a technology gap: there is no technology designed to address the needs of gardeners who have more sophisticated goals than recreational gardeners, but who are not interested in running a business based on growing and selling food. Geo Garden Club is targeting this market and technology niche.
The impact of improved garden knowledge
Improving the ability of gardeners to learn effective gardening practices has been shown to facilitate participation in gardening. A study of the socio-behavioral drivers of growing produce at home (Grebitus, 2021) found that knowledge of gardening practices was a significant factor. "...increased knowledge leads to increased participation in home and community gardens. Hence, we need to educate future gardeners, to increase their knowledge and ability to participate safely in small-scale urban agriculture, as stressed by Kortright and Wakefield, who suggested that home food gardeners could be supported with regard to acquiring ecological gardening skills and to general learning opportunities. Lack of knowledge can increase the risk for those who are unaware of safe gardening practices, for example the risk of soil contaminants."