Public Health Community Advisory – Although community gardening is a wonderful way to promote healthy eating, exercise, nutrition education, and social capital, there are challenges we in public health should recognize.
Most urban gardening takes place on lots that have had prior uses that may have contaminated the soil. Possible contaminants include lead, mercury, arsenic, pesticides, and hormonally active breakdown products of plastics. For the most part, vegetables absorb very little of these chemicals. But roots and leaves may be coated with dirt containing these. Moreover, gardeners may be exposed to dust while working in the garden. Using raised beds and amending the soil with safe, new soil can help. However, in the long run, inputs to the garden, especially compost, need to be monitored for possible toxic content. Above all, gardeners, especially children, should be cautioned to wash their hands and vegetables before eating anything, and to wash themselves and take off their clothes upon entering the house. Masks can be helpful when handling friable mulch and dusty soil. Ample information on safe gardening is available on the web, largely from universities that assist and monitor community gardens.
Mid-summer is often hot and dry (and the world is getting hotter and drier). In hot periods, the best time of the day to work in the garden is early morning, although evenings are often cool.
Gardeners with health vulnerabilities, such as elders or those with heart or vascular conditions, should be strongly cautioned against working during hot mid-days. And gardeners must remember to wear sun screen and to stay hydrated. Community gardens should provide sun screen and water.
Although gardening work is healthy, it involves stooping, lifting, reaching out, and handling tools, brush, and dirt. All these have risks. In some of our gardening programs, we conduct stretching and yoga exercises. For aerobic exercise, we built a small basketball court right by the garden. And a first aid kit for scratches should be handy.
Conducting public health research about gardening is not easy. It’s not handy for gardeners to fill out a questionnaire while working in the garden with dirty hands and no pencil. It is hard to weigh out how much produce people are taking home. And do gardeners eat their vegetables once they are in the fridge? Do we really apply what we learn in nutrition classes?
Despite these and other challenges, community gardening is a growing social and health movement that is winning support in cities and rural areas all around the nation.
This article was written by Andrew Jameton, PhD, professor in the UNMC COPH Department of Health Promotion, Social and Behavioral Health.