January 2, 2013

Natural Foodie: A Johnny Appleseed for the 21st century

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

In this "get big or get out" world, sometimes small acts have great power.

click image to enlarge

Roger Doiron used this graphic and other outreach methods to lead a successful campaign to see a kitchen garden planted on the White House lawn.

Photo illustration courtesy of Roger Doiron

click image to enlarge

Jason and Jennifer Helvenston of Orlando, Fla., were ordered to remove this front-yard vegetable garden by local officials who said it was in violation of city code. Kitchen Gardeners International, based in Maine, launched an online campaign to help them, and within 48 hours the city announced that it was reversing its decision and that the Helvenstons would be allowed to keep their garden.

Photo courtesy of Jason Helvenston



SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY garden organizers can apply for a package of seeds, tools and cash with a value of $600. Applications are due Jan. 11. To apply visit www.sowitforward.org.


SARAH SCHINDLER, associate law professor at the University of Maine School of Law, authored a paper in the Tulane Law Review earlier this year examining how the growing locavore movement is coming into conflict with zoning ordinances. The paper examines how municipalities are responding to property owners who want to raise their own food in urban and suburban settings. It also looks at why these bans exist and the changing societal needs that make them outdated. It concludes with guidance for municipalities who want to modernize their zoning ordinances. Here she answers a few questions about her work:

Did your research provide any gauge of how widespread zoning restrictions are on residential agriculture, such as front yard gardens and backyard chickens?

I did not conduct an empirical study or 50 state survey. Rather, my research assistant and I looked for newspaper articles that discussed municipalities where there was some conflict or debate about the existing or newly proposed urban agriculture ordinances and went from there. I also looked to some of the standard land use "thought leader" cities to see what they were doing, as I have found that oftentimes something that starts as a "wacky" or progressive ordinance in a place like San Francisco or Portland, Oregon, can wind up spreading to other parts of the country after a few years.

Is this more of an issue in certain types of communities or certain parts of the country? Or is it an issue throughout the nation?

My research suggested that these ordinances exist throughout the country. And it is not just in the standard progressive municipalities that citizens are taking a stand against these urban agriculture bans and petitioning their local elected officials to overturn them. It's fairly widespread; more and more people seem to be seeking to incorporate locavorism into their lives.


Did your research reveal any trends in residential agricultural zoning? For instance, are bans on the increase, decrease or holding steady?

Again, it is hard to say because I didn't do a survey of ordinances. However, the bans do not seem to be universally in decline. As urban and suburban chicken-raising is becoming more popular, you actually see some concerned citizens proactively petitioning to get bans in place where none existed before. The other element we must consider here is that zoning isn't the last word. MANY people in the U.S now live in common interest communities that are governed by private recorded covenants, conditions and restrictions, or CC&Rs. If these are stricter than zoning ordinances and not against public policy, they control. So arguably, even if the local zoning code says you can have a front yard garden, if a restrictive covenant in your neighborhood restricts front yards to neatly mowed lawns, you're probably stuck with a lawn.

Could you sum up why you argue that bans on urban agriculture are out-of-date and fail to address modern challenges?

Although there are some valid reasons for banning urban agricultural uses, those justifications are often antiquated and outweighed by more current conceptions of appropriate land use. Zoning was created as a land use control technique whose purpose was to protect residential uses, and particularly single family homes, from other uses, like industrial and agricultural uses, that were viewed as incompatible and potentially harmful.

But our views of what is harmful and what is beneficial have changed over time. I would suggest that the harms associated with industrial agricultural production and lack of access to locally-produced food -- food insecurity, food deserts, obesity tied to processed foods, monoculture-induced catastrophes, harm to animals, and greenhouse gas emissions -- are more harmful than the risks associated with urban agriculture. And these harms could all be alleviated, at least in part, through urban agriculture. Further, municipalities have begun to recognize that traditional zoning techniques were a direct cause of sprawl and unsustainable development in the U.S.

Thus, many localities are moving away from those traditional zoning methods and toward the creation of mixed-use zones, which allow uses that were previously viewed as incompatible to locate along side one another.

I see the removal of urban agriculture bans as part of a broader trend in land use, where municipalities are moving away from strict, centralized legal authority and toward deregulation, or at least toward more inclusive views of which segments of society zoning should seek to protect.



Scarborough resident Roger Doiron understands this principle well.

Doiron, who is the founder and head of the nonprofit Kitchen Gardeners International, encourages the simple act of planting a vegetable garden in your backyard, front yard or window box.

Both a front yard and backyard gardener himself, Doiron said he does it because, "I might not be able to save the planet, but I might be able to save tonight's dinner."

Doiron started the nonprofit in 2003 after working in Europe for an environmental group, where he said the work was critical but not very tangible. To him, gardening offers a hands-on way to improve the health of the planet and the health of his family.

Kitchen Gardeners International became more of a full-time endeavor for Doiron in 2008, when he landed a Kellogg Food & Community fellowship. This also marked the year Kitchen Gardeners International launched its successful White House Kitchen Garden campaign.

The push to encourage the next president to plant a vegetable garden at the White House gained traction when Kitchen Gardeners International's proposal for the idea garnered the most support on the Better World Campaign's On Day One contest. The competition encouraged people to submit ideas that the incoming president could implement upon taking office.

First Lady Michelle Obama ended up embracing this initiative and planting a garden that supplies vegetables and fruits to the First Family, guests at official functions and a soup kitchen. The popular garden currently has its own tours, is the subject of the First Lady's book "American Grown," and is part of her wider effort to promote healthy eating.

Prior to the White House Garden campaign, Kitchen Gardeners International had fewer than 5,000 members. But by the time the garden was planted -- and after the organization was mentioned by major news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal -- it had amassed 20,000 members. Today, the nonprofit -- with a budget of less than $100,000 -- has a global reach of almost 27,000 people.

Once again the nonprofit is in the news. This time the coverage comes as a result of its work to help marshal support for front yard gardeners who run afoul of local zoning ordinances that prohibit landscaping that deviates from manicured lawns and shrubbery.

Kitchen Gardeners International became involved in the fight over front yard gardens in the summer of 2011. Doiron, like many gardeners around the country, was following the case of Julie Bass. At the time, Bass was a resident of Oak Park, Michigan, and was being threatened with jail time if she didn't remove the raised beds in her front yard.

Doiron alerted the organization's network and generated emails and calls in support of Bass and her garden. Since then, Kitchen Gardeners International has rallied support for front yard gardeners in Memphis, Orlando and Quebec. In all the cases Kitchen Gardeners International has worked on, the municipalities have backed down from taking action against the front yard gardeners.

Doiron said the Orlando case was resolved much more quickly than the others. He attributes this to the fact that Kitchen Gardeners International was "able to call out the mayor in a very public way because the mayor had launched a communications platform of Orlando as a green city and a garden city. We said it's important that you walk the talk."

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