As a senior, Elena Kick is nervous about going into grocery stores during the pandemic: Adhering to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she wears a mask, maintains social distance and washes her hands frequently. Vince Costello, also a senior, goes for solitary jogs to keep fit during the pandemic. Both try to limit trips to their neighborhood supermarket.
Until a few days ago, Elena and Vince had a healthy, affordable alternative to stores: They harvested organic vegetables from their own gardens as members of Honolulu’s Community Recreational Gardening Program. When the community gardens were locked for the second time during the pandemic, on Aug. 27, food raised by Vince, Elena and their co-gardeners was left to rot in their plots — food that could have nourished them and their families and lessened their need to go to the grocery store.
This experience of being locked out of the gardens is being shared by close to 1,200 gardeners who make up the community gardening program. Overwhelmingly, community gardeners are seniors who shun enclosed spaces during the pandemic, but feel safe in their gardens, where they can be outside, maintaining adequate distancing.
While gardeners appreciate the efforts of city Department of Parks and Recreation staff, who are watering in nine of the 10 Oahu community gardens twice a week, they say it doesn’t make sense to close down a safe, affordable food resource when people are struggling to make ends meet. The mayor has said he will consider reopening the gardens when the number of infections go down, but gardeners argue the numbers are largely irrelevant.
As Leonard Smothermon, president of the Hawaii Kai Community Garden, notes, the gardens, which are highly regulated spaces, are not and never have been the source of our rising numbers.
When the gardens were reopened after the first closure, in March, the number of infections did not go up. The rise in Infections began in June, shortly after Memorial Day. It was traced, as in other geographic locations, to business meetings, indoor exercise classes and social gatherings where masks were optional and social distancing was not enforced.
In other parts of the country, community gardens have been refuges during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, Colorado, California and other jurisdictions, where community gardens were kept open despite high rates of infection, gardens are seen as critical services and a means of supplementing family food budgets, relieving stress, and preventing isolation.
We all hope, coming out of the pandemic, that we will have learned how to make our communities more resilient in times of adversity. Our experience and the experiences of others show us that community gardens are one step in achieving a healthier lifestyle and fostering community engagement at a time when we need these strengths more than ever.
Letitia Hickson is founding member of the Garden Helpers Network and a Hawaii Kai Community Garden member; Kimi Makaiau is co-founder of Urban Waiwai and a graduate teaching assistant in the University of Hawaii-Manoa Department of Urban and Regional Planning.