Penelope Parnes loves gardening, but her passion has outgrown her small backyard in Ewa.
As vice chair of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, Parnes knows she isn’t the only person in West Oahu who would like a community garden. But when she approached the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation in 2019, she was told the department wasn’t accepting proposals for new gardens.
“It’s an equity issue,” Parnes said. “This is a beautiful community full of great people and we deserve nice things. We pay taxes but we just don’t get them.”
Seven of the 10 publicly funded community gardens run by the City and County of Honolulu are in southern Oahu. None are located on the Westside. And although they’re billed as a leisure option for apartment-dwellers in metro areas, a new garden hasn’t opened in more than three decades — even as other areas across Oahu have urbanized.
Now, a growing number of people across West Oahu are calling on the city to expand the community garden program with a focus on equity, food security and righting past wrongs.
Parnes said she wishes she would have pushed back against the parks department in 2019 because the pandemic made her realize all the ways a community garden could have helped her neighbors.
“Obviously I didn’t know that we’d be doing food banks every single weekend,” she said. “It would have been nice if we could have had a community garden up and going to augment” food needs.
People who grow their own food in community gardens not only have lower grocery bills and eat more fruits and vegetables, they also help their neighbors, said Samina Raja, a professor at the University of Buffalo and leading researcher on how urban planning affects community health and food systems.
In surveys of community gardeners, Raja found that gardeners share about 30% of their produce with friends and family outside of the home and donate another 10%.
“If I go and do some grocery shopping it may impact my diet, but community gardening has a social health benefit in the sense that gardeners share with their neighbors and their friends,” she said.
The main benefit of gardening also changes depending on someone’s background, Raja found. Refugee gardeners are more likely to cite the therapeutic benefits of gardening while white gardeners like interacting with their neighbors the most. Black gardeners often say they see growing food as a means of liberation.
“It’s not just about access to food, it’s an opportunity to control their own food system,” she said.
Across the country the mindset about community gardens is shifting away from recreation, Raja said, and the demand for new gardens is particularly high in areas with large wealth gaps, like Oahu.
“If they don’t ensure equity and people’s control of their food system, then why bother?” she said.
Resilience wasn’t the parks department’s priority in 1975 when the first community garden opened on a quarter acre of former sugar plantation land in Makiki. The garden amassed a waitlist overnight, and the department opened six more gardens in rapid succession. In newspaper articles from the time early participants mention the health and economic benefits of gardening, but the primary focus of the program was recreation.
The program didn’t branch outside of urban Honolulu until 1977 with the construction of a community garden in Kaneohe for apartment dwellers on the Windward Coast. The Wahiawa community garden across from the Wheeler Air Force Base followed shortly after. Over the years newspaper articles mention potential gardens in Waipahu, Waimanalo, Kailua and Whitmore Village — but none materialized.
There are currently 1,229 plots across the 10 parks, but it’s not unusual for someone to be on the waitlist for six months or more said Leonard Smothermon, president of the Hawaii Kai community garden.
Smothermon said his garden currently has the shortest waitlist with only seven pending applications. He said that other gardens regularly have 60-plus people on the waitlist and that the pandemic has increased demand for plots.
Last year the Honolulu City Council passed a bill calling on the director of the parks department to identify locations for new community gardens, especially in underserved areas.
“We shouldn’t just look at this as a recreational program,” former Council Member Kymberly Pine, the bill’s sponsor, said at a December City Council meeting, “This is something that’s going to help us create food forests throughout our entire city where people can have the dignity of growing their own food.”
Laura Thielen, the newly confirmed director of the Honolulu Parks and Recreation Department, said that while she isn’t ready to release plans detailing the future of the community garden program, she is supportive of expanding access.
“Growing food and being able to garden is important to me,” she said, noting that she graduated from the University of Hawaii’s master gardener program between her term as chair of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and her time in the state Senate.
Thielen said any additions to the community garden program will naturally be constrained by the city’s budget and available personnel. Although the department already has available land in its parks and makes about $40,000 a year from community garden fees, she has to consider the cost of fencing, topsoil, irrigation and administrative support.
Miki‘ala Lidstone has a proposal for the department that she says would go a long way toward building trust on the Westside: recognizing the Puʻuokapolei garden in Kapolei as an official community garden.
“It would show good faith between the community and the Department of Parks and Rec because many times here on the Leeward side we feel like we’re not acknowledged,” she said. “Just being listed on their website would bring more outreach to the area.”
Lidstone is the executive director of Ulu A‘e Learning Center, the group caring for the Puʻuokapolei historic site and native plant garden.
“Native practitioners come here to gather la’au lapa’au plants, medicinal plants like noni,” Lidstone said. “We’ve built a community of people who have formed a connection to this place and are devoted to caring for it.”
During Honolulu’s first lockdown in March of last year, Lidstone worried that years of hard work turning the area from a trash-littered plot to a vibrant garden full of native foods and medicinal plants would be undone.
So she was thrilled when Mayor Kirk Caldwell amended the stay-at-home order so community gardeners could care for their plants. But when Lidstone arrived at Kapolei Regional Park, she learned the Puʻuokapolei garden didn’t count because it wasn’t part of the official community garden program.
“Our community has been caring for this garden since 2008, so to find out that we weren’t considered a community garden got me really … I was disappointed,” she said.
Lidstone said she asked the department if the Puʻuokapolei garden could join the program, but never received a response.
Long term, she would like material support for the garden. Right now, they don’t have access to reliable irrigation, so every morning a team of volunteers drives in jugs to hand-water the plants. Lidstone said if they were an official garden, the parks department could help them access Kapolei Regional Park’s sprinkler system.
But even if the department doesn’t choose to officially recognize the Puʻuokapolei garden, she still hopes to see community gardens across the Leeward side soon.
“It’s just an equity issue,” she said. “Everyone should have access to the same resources to grow food if they want and need to.”
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