Mexico City launches community gardens

The 21 community gardens are part of the mayor's bid to improve the city's quality of life.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Growth: Participants in one of Mexico City's 21 new community gardens check out their crops. The program makes food more affordable.
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Teresa Trujillo's family income took a hit when her husband, a carpenter and the family's sole breadwinner, lost his job due to an illness just as food prices in Mexico started to skyrocket. So she looked for help with putting food on the table wherever she could find it.

It turns out the mother of two didn't have to look far: right around the corner, among concrete-block homes, some with sheets hanging as doors, neighbors grow squash, spinach, and cauliflower in neatly potted beds.

It's one of 21 community gardens planted in Mexico City since last year as part of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's push to improve the quality of life for this sprawling city of 20 million. It's also part of the city's answer to food inflation that has led to clashes and riots the world over.

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"Our goal is that Mexico City be self-sufficient when it comes to food," says Pedro Ponce, who directs the community garden program for the Mexico City government. "This is not to make anyone rich, but it can help."

"This helped me move forward when I needed it most, even though my kids didn't like vegetables," says Ms. Trujillo. "Now they do."

Skyrocketing food prices

Since Mexicans took to the streets last January after the price of tortillas doubled, the cost of corn, tomatoes, and onions has dominated conversations and editorial pages.

Over the past year, food prices in Mexico have gone up by 9.18 percent as of July, compared with a 5.39 percent rise in the consumer price index in general, according to Mexico's central bank. In May, Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced measures to counter prices, including the elimination of tariffs on wheat, corn, and rice.

But the city community garden program, in which the government provides materials and expertise and the residents carry out the work, is intended to have an immediate impact.

The goal is to double the number of gardens by the end of 2008.

This garden, in the industrial and crime-ridden neighborhood of Iztapalapa on the edge of Mexico City, was among the city's first.

It used to be a garbage dump; how the smell of old milk cartons and beer cans has been replaced with the fresh scent of cilantro.

How the community gardens work

On a recent day, residents pull off pea pods, as a simple irrigation system waters crop beds. Small children, on summer holiday, run around the soccer field-sized space.

Here, about two dozen members of the garden cooperative come together each evening, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and help out with whatever needs to be done, from making compost to planting new crops. In turn, they share the bounty they reap between their families.

The Mexican efforts follow a trend in the US. Backdoor gardens are blooming, with 25 million American households engaged in vegetable gardening last year, according to the National Garden Association (NGA). Bruce Butterfield, the research director of the NGA, says the group forecasts 10 percent growth in the number of households participating, as happened after the 2001 recession. The reason this time: high food and gas prices.

Mr. Butterfield says that part of the allure is a sense of control – a sentiment shared by Mexicans across the border, too. In a country where the minimum wage is $5 a day, and where nearly half the nation lives below the poverty line, growing their own food offers them a cushion of sorts. "This gives me security, if something happens, at least we can feed ourselves," says Marta Aguirre, a retired schoolteacher and cooperative member.

Rising food prices have dominated headlines and conversations in Mexico since the so-called "tortilla protests" of last year. In local markets, prices for vegetables are way up. Maria de los Angeles Lopez is now selling a kilogram of tomatoes for about $1 – double what she would have charged last year at this time, she says. But, in turn, the meals she eats at the local stall have also gone up. "I'm a mother; of course I'm worried about this," she says.

Some lifelong residents of Iztapalapa, such as Ms. Aguirre, had literally never stuck their fingers in the soil to plant a seed. For many others, it's a way to reexperience what they left behind in the countryside. "It had been a long time since I'd seen a plant in the ground, let alone do the actual planting," says Enrique Miguel Pazos, who moved to Mexico from the northern mountains of Oaxaca state 15 years ago and now makes a living selling tools at a local market.

The government wants this experience to spread throughout the city, and not just to neighborhoods but to schools and jails. The city is also promoting the planting of vegetables in backyards and on rooftop terraces.

The gardeners here in Iztapalapa eventually want to grow enough produce to sell at their own farmers' market. The aim, however, is not capital – it's philosophical, says Mariano Salazar, a group leader: "It's so that the residents of Mexico City learn how to be producers, and not just consumers."

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