Several cities have begun growing fruits and vegetables rather than ornamental plants and flowers on public land. By growing “public produce,” cities are aiming to make better use of space while offering residents healthy food options.

Public produce includes three facets, according to Davenport, Iowa, City Planner Darrin Nordahl, author of the book “Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture.” First, the food must be grown in public spaces, such as a city park or alongside a street. Second, the food must be freely available to all members of the public. And third, the garden must be permitted, funded and/or maintained by public officials. “It increases food literacy and diversity in the diet, and capitalizes on underutilized space,” Nordahl says. About nine cities throughout the United States and Canada have begun public produce programs, Nordahl says.

In 2009, the Vermont State House in Montpelier, Vt., was left with an empty flowerbed after budget cuts eliminated funds to plant and maintain ornamental plants. So Glenn Scherer, volunteer with the locally based Association for the Planting of edible Public Landscapes for Everyone (APPLE Corps), pitched the idea of planting produce in the bed instead. “Who can be against growing vegetables for those who need them?” Scherer says.

During its first year, the garden, which APPLE Corps operates, produced 286 pounds of vegetables, and it is on track to produce more than 400 pounds in 2011. APPLE Corps delivers all of the food grown in the State House Food Garden to the Montpelier Food Pantry and the Bethany Church Soup Kitchen, Scherer says.

Provo, Utah, Urban Planner Nathan Murray was part of a group that started that city's community garden in summer 2009. The idea came when a plot of land across the street from Murray's office on Provo City Campus was in dire need of a makeover. “You really get to see the fruits of your labors,” Murray says.

The Provo garden produced 300 pounds in its first year, and Murray says the city plans to produce 1,000 pounds in 2011. Like the APPLE Corps, Provo donates its produce to a local food bank. “We don't take anything for ourselves,” Murray says. “There's been consistent interest and growth from others in the city who have asked to help.”

Scherer says public produce contributes to a sense of community, and many Vermont state legislators now enjoy spending a day helping with the harvest. “It brings people out of isolation,” Scherer says. “The spontaneity [of the movement] is exciting. It's as if the seeds we're growing are the seeds of change.”

Allison Reilly is a St. Louis, Mo.-based freelance writer.

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