Under the Highway I40 overpass near downtown Nashville is an unlikely spot for green space, but the central location of Farm in the City brings people together to grow their own food.
It is just one of many spaces all over Nashville where residents look to community gardens and urban farms to put good use to unused land, remedy food insecurity and build community.
At Farm in the City, gardeners pay $5-15 per year to reserve one of 48 boxes ranging from 4 ft. by 4 ft. to 4 ft. by 16 ft.. Most commonly, they’re used to grow vegetables.
The garden was started in the formerly unused hillside next to the John Henry Hale apartments in 2010. Metro Development and Housing Agency is responsible for both areas.
Another organization giving opportunities for growing is the The Nashville Food Project, which manages five community gardens, some focused on providing resources for refugee and immigrant populations. Before The NFP became what it is today, it went by a different name and simply passed out sack lunches to people in need. It began to take a more holistic approach after the 2010 Nashville flood.
“It wasn’t just emergency food that was needed but moreso spirit rebuilding and treating food more as a means to gather people together. Instead of it being a handout, we wanted it to work more like a partnership relationship,” says Kia Brown, community garden manager.
The NFP offers twice monthly trainings for those unfamiliar with gardening. Brown notes many of the immigrants and refugees the organization works with have agrarian backgrounds, so for them it is more about teaching differences in climate and soil compared to their home countries, while providing the space that is not often available in apartment complexes. With these resources, they are able to grow the foods they are used to eating in their home countries but may not be able to afford or access at local grocery stores.
Land affected by flooding, known as flood plains, is commonly used for urban gardens because it is protected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency so that new structures are built on it. Sow Nashville, a program of the Metro Human Relations Commission, provides resources for getting permits to farm on this unused land. The organization is responsible for helping to secure permits for Paragon Urban Farm, a five-acre farm located south of Nashville and maintained by FASHA, a nonprofit organization started by refugees from the African Great Lakes Region. The organization works to help refugees integrate into American culture and become self-sufficient through farming.
Mark Eatherly, director of operations and special projects at the Human Relations Commission, says even with a land permit, there are a plenty of obstacles to overcome when looking to start an urban garden, including money, access to water and liability insurance. But when they are established, he says he sees community gardens and urban farms as a direct way to address food insecurity.
“There are areas of town that don’t have access to affordable healthy food and there’s just nowhere they can go if they don’t have transportation,” Eatherly says. “The idea is, if you can embed food into those communities, you can kind of create this natural ecosystem.”
A sense of community is the common thread that runs through the urban gardens and farms of Nashville. Gloria Ballard, one of four garden committee members at Farm in the City and member of the Davidson County master gardeners, says plot holders come in at different skill levels but help one another out.
“A lot of people are experienced but there are a lot of newcomers, and when we do have somebody that’s coming in that has never gardened before, there are plenty of people around who have enough experience that we sort of lead them through it,” Ballard says. With a location in the middle of the city, there are plenty of people to gather in the green spaces.
“We are coming from all different parts of the community but with a shared interest in gardening,” Ballard says. “That’s what brings us together. We like to think that we’re the microcosm, maybe, of what would be a perfect world if you could come together with one goal, which is to grow a garden.”