It’s no secret that being out in nature and getting plenty of fresh air can work wonders for our health and wellbeing, and with gardening being a key way to do both, it’s not surprising that it has many studied benefits. What is it about community gardening specifically though, that is so good for us? In a series of three blog posts, we’re exploring how our community gardening projects, and food hubs, can positively impact the local people that come along and participate. Following on from our March and April blog posts, which looked at how these projects can benefit the social and mental wellbeing of local people, in this final post we’ll explore how they do so for participants’ physical health.
Good nutrition, plenty of fresh air, and adequate exercise are, as we are often told, big factors that can contribute to improved physical health. The potential benefits of community gardening to physical health are perhaps the most obvious then, but what are the specifics to back this up, and where does nutrition come in?
Having tracked the progress of growing projects funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Communities Living Sustainably’ programme, a 2015 report from Farm Garden found that involvement in community growing projects can prompt participants to adopt healthier lifestyle habits. Another study published in the Environmental Evidence Journal (EEJ) found that non-transmissible diseases and their subsequent health risks could be reduced across populations through community gardening projects, since such initiatives promote higher levels of physical activity and a healthier diet. It elaborated upon this by stating that:
Community gardening has been argued to have potential to improve the nutritional status of those involved. For example, where community gardeners focus on fruit and vegetable production there is the potential that participants could improve their diets through more positive perceptions towards, awareness of, and access to these foodstuffs
Learning to grow, care for, and harvest a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs is at the core of activity in our community gardens. By supporting participants to see the process through from seed to produce, and from field to fork through community meals and picnics (where unique meals are created and presented in an appealing way using produce grown by participants), we endeavour to create a positive perception of more nutritious, but nonetheless enjoyable foods. Our Community Food Officer, Catherine Fyfe, highlighted how important this was in her role:
In terms of what I think is an achievable goal, I really want to ensure that more local people are enjoying and experiencing healthy food […] and have more people coming along to events and hopefully taking something positive away from them, whether that’s becoming inspired to eat healthier or trying to cook a new dish themselves.
She also added that:
There’s so much healthy and delicious food to experience and with that comes the chance to help tackle various health issues so that people can live happier and healthier lives, and so exposing more people to that opportunity through our projects is a constant goal.
Our Community Chef, Tona Sato, also emphasised how our community growers are as much a part of the final product as he himself when he stated that:
I […] consider the meals ours as a community, because the gardeners, local people and the team are all part of the cycle that goes into providing the ingredients and the resulting final dish.
In 2021’s harvest season, participants across our community gardens reaped the rewards of their hard work and perseverance in growing produce by taking regular hauls of fruits and vegetables to use in their own home-cooking. On several occasions gardeners brought that home-cooking back into the garden to enjoy with their fellow participants, with blackcurrant juice made by one of the Murrayburn and Hailesland Community Garden growers a particular hit in the warm weather.
The benefits of healthier food consumption were further extended across their respective communities, with produce from the gardens regularly dropped off at local food banks and community meals. With a large surplus of produce that the gardeners themselves could not consume, the Broomhouse Growers took the initiative to set-up a free market stall outside the Broomhouse Hub on Wednesday afternoons, which was well received by local residents, who were impressed by the quality and range of produce. Such examples affirm the EEJ’s assertion that community gardening can alleviate the negative physical health impacts of food poverty and insecurity not just for the gardeners themselves, but for the wider community through distribution of, and better access to fresh produce. By establishing that sense of ownership, and creating a positive, community-centred experience of nutritious and enjoyable produce therefore, we hope to lay the groundwork in positively impacting the physical health of participants, attendees, and the wider community.
In a Swedish study of 4,232 people, a generally active daily life was found to significantly benefit cardiovascular health, which, could in part be achieved by regular involvement in a community growing project according to the EEJ. That’s no surprise with the level of physical exertion needed to maintain growing beds, weed paths, and harvest crops, however the EEj also added that:
the communal, collective nature of the activities within these projects may promote adherence and greater motivations to continuing higher levels of physical activity.
One of our participants noted how just the existence of the local, dedicated community garden space in Murrayburn and Hailesland encouraged her daughter to spend more time outside, as it was somewhere she could make friends after recently moving to the area. Another stated that one of her friends enjoyed coming along to walk her dog around the garden and pick-up one of the meals on offer, demonstrating that the social and communal nature of community growing spaces and food hubs encourage local people to spend more time outdoors and subsequently obtain some of their daily physical exercise, whether that be through gardening itself or through a walk around the growing beds. Other participants noted how the gardening activities and meals gave them a healthy activity to do that was close to home, with one stating that they believe coming to the garden was one factor that helped them in ‘getting their health back.’
These examples demonstrate the potential benefits of community gardening projects to participants’ physical health. Both exposure to enjoyable healthy foods and their nutritional benefits, and greater incentive to be outdoors and engage in physical activity were cited as positive impacts of community gardens by researchers, and backed-up by our participants. We therefore believe that incorporating more community growing spaces and opportunities to share the produce grown is essential to communities across Wester Hailes, as well as urban areas more generally.
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