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"I am bringing healthy food to the community and showing people how to grow it and cook it," says Ron Finley. (Rickett & Sones)

How Guerrilla Gardening Can Save America's Food Deserts

Ron Finley's L.A. Green Grounds brings fresh fruit and vegetables to urban neighborhoods dominated by fast food, liquor stores and empty lots

About three years ago, South Los Angeles resident Ron Finley got fed up with having to drive more than half an hour to find a ripe, pesticide-free tomato. So he decided to plant a vegetable garden in the space between the sidewalk and street outside of his home, located in the working-class neighborhood where he grew up, surrounded by fast food restaurants, liquor stores and other not-so-healthy options.

When the City of Los Angeles told him to stop, based on the old laws that said just trees and lawn could be planted on those skinny strips of urban land, Finley, who is a fashion designer and Blaxploitation memorabilia collector by day, quickly rose to fame as southern California's “guerilla gardener.” By founding a nonprofit called L.A. Green Grounds, whose monthly “dig-ins” feature hundreds of volunteers turning overlooked pieces of urban land into forests of food, Finley became the face of a public campaign against the city, which owns roughly 26 square miles of vacant lots that he believes could fit nearly one billion tomato plants. The city listened, and is now in the final stages of changing the rules to allow fruits and veggies to be planted along sidewalks.

“I'm pretty proud of that,” said Finley, who recently answered a few more questions for Smithsonian.com.

You've called South Los Angeles a “food desert,” a term I've started hearing all over the place. Can you tell me more about what that means?

I call them food prisons, because you're basically captured with your food system. There is no healthy food to be found. Food, if you want to call it that, is literally killing us very slowly. It's all sprayed and genetically modified and pressed and formed and processed. These areas are devoid of any kind of organic, healthy, nutritious food. There's not even a sit-down restaurant where you can have a nice meal prepared. That's what a food desert is. You can go for miles without having anything healthy to eat.

Is this a new phenomenon?

It's nothing new. It's been going on for years. It's just that now we have this proliferation of cancers and asthma and chronic illness. And then you have all these other people who can attest to food being their salvation. We have never heard of half these cancers, and a lot of it has to do with what we put into our bodies. It's like soil to a plant—if you don't have nutrients in that soil, the plant is going to get sick and die.

Why did you confront this issue by planting gardens along sidewalks?

My thing is like, “Flip the script.” Let's start something new. Let's create a new model. Why are we growing grass? What's the purpose of that, when you need to eat? When you have water shortages, why would you water grass? It's more labor intensive, you mow it, and you throw it away. You could be using less energy and growing food and developing an ecosystem that attracts beneficial butterflies, and bees, and hummingbirds. You're creating an ecosystem where everything is linked. Why do I do this? Because we are nature. Everyone tries to separate us from nature. People think nature is over there, that you go drive to nature. Nah, we're organic matter too, just like leaves.

Did your background as a fashion designer give you any special talents to tackle this issue?

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