Withering on the Vine
By Erica C. Barnett
AUGUST 3, 1998: In the often-brutal world of the nonprofit community, every wrong decision tests an organization's strength to survive. Is it better to stick to one's principles, or tell funders what they want to hear? Should a group adhere to a single blueprint, or make radical changes if things don't go as planned? And how much obligation, if any, does a nonprofit have to the community it serves? In the microcosm of Austin's community gardening movement, two big organizations have taken radically different routes. The younger of the two, Kate Fitzgerald's 6-year-old Sustainable Food Center, is thriving. The other, 23-year-old Austin Community Gardens, is scrambling for a foothold in the changing climate of a citywide movement it largely built. Although a cursory examination indicates only cosmetic differences between the two organizations, a closer look reveals a movement divided as much by personality as by philosophy.
The contrasts are starkly illustrated by the dissimilar conditions of the groups' largest gardens. The Sustainable Food Center's home base, a three-acre "urban farm" behind Allison Elementary in Southeast Austin's Montopolis neighborhood, is a bustling, efficient testimony to ambition and innovation. A tour around the farm reveals an enormous variety of projects, including a large food garden for the center's farmers' markets, a straw-bale barn whose residents include two calves, a greenhouse built by area high school students, four colonies of honey-producing bees, and a demonstration "kitchen garden" designed, according to staff member Felipe Camacho, to produce enough food for a family to save $500 in groceries each year.
Besides the projects based on the farm, the Sustainable Food Center runs a popular series of "La Cocina Allegre" (The Happy Kitchen) cooking classes for low-income women and teenagers, hires "at-risk" teens from nearby high schools for internships and year-long job programs, and oversees several satellite gardens in low-income communities across East and Southeast Austin.
Although Austin Community Gardens has historically been no less ambitious than the Sustainable Food Center, its crumbling gardens currently show little evidence of its founders' aspirations. Founded by the YWCA in 1975 and consolidated as an independent nonprofit in 1987, the organization has been through a series of misfortunes in recent years, including the loss of all county funding in 1993, and recent "funding shortfalls" which forced the center to lay off its only two staff members in late May and cut all lifelines to its local satellite gardens in neighborhoods, elderly care facilities, and schools.
A blueprint that initially included educational programs at local schools, community gardens in low-income areas, and a volunteer food pantry garden has shriveled to a single large facility - North Central Austin's Sunshine Gardens - which is supported by dues from its largely middle-class clientele. The food pantry garden, which once produced 5,000 pounds of produce a year for Austin-area food banks, is in sorry disrepair, its vines turned brittle by lack of water and its vegetables rotting on the ground. The network of neighborhood gardens - to which ACG once provided technical assistance, seedlings, and infrastructure - are largely overgrown and abandoned, and its satellite gardens, such as the one at Elder Haven in Central Austin, are suffering from a lack of assistance and funds.
Winds of ChangeWhy did Austin Community Gardens sink while the Sustainable Food Center blossomed? Apart from the usual vagaries of the fickle market for nonprofit funds, one answer may lie in the competing philosophies at the heart of the two organizations and, on a larger level, of the community gardening crusade nationwide.
The movement to turn gardening into a community effort began during the energy crisis of the early 1970s, driven by increasing produce prices and deteriorating inner-city areas. It was a time of optimism about community organizing and environmental salvation. In its earliest incarnation, the U.S. community gardening movement was a small but ambitious effort to feed the hungry and revitalize urban neighborhoods, while giving city dwellers a back-to-the-land sense of connection to the natural environment. Later, as community gardens sprouted from 20 in the Seventies to about 550 today, a number of competing philosophies emerged, causing rifts in individual communities even as the larger movement continued to expand and gain new sources of funding.
In Austin, two philosophies have shaped the movement and its fight for funds. On the one hand, there is "food security," the concept espoused by the Sustainable Food Center and evident in its programs, whose vast scope belies their similar intent: to provide a lasting food safety net for its members, while addressing the larger issues of urban poverty and malaise. "We're interested in keeping people out of the cycle of being hungry, which includes the cycle of poverty," says Kate Fitzgerald, the center's founder and director.
On the other hand, there is community building, a more nebulous concept embraced by Austin Community Gardens, which focuses on gardens as a tool to enhance community solidarity and improve neighborhoods. According to ACG's Web site, community building is the "most important" contribution made by the urban community gardening movement.
Frank Fuller, executive director of ACG, believes that the difficulty of promoting an ambiguous concept like "community building" explains his organization's problems in securing public funds. "The county came to us and said, 'Why should we give you $30,000 to help people grow food when we can give the same amount of money to a food pantry to go out and buy $30,000 worth of food themselves?'"
City and county records show that AGC's 1997 request for $21,750 was refused, primarily because the group failed to "document impact in terms of food produced," and did not sufficiently "emphasize service to low-income" people. According to Val Shepherd, acting director of Health and Human Services for the city, ACG "didn't seem to be oriented toward helping the most needy individuals in the community" through an emphasis on food production.
Fuller believes that ACG's value is in its worth to the community, a value not so easily quantified as hunger prevention or food security. The value of the Sunshine Gardens, whose five acres are occupied as much by plots of flowers, herbs, and ornamental plants as by vegetables, is in "community recreation, beautification - things that are quite intangible," Fuller says. The gardens serve as a connection to the environment, and to other people, Fuller believes - a connection people often fail to make in Austin's fast-paced urban atmosphere. "In a way, they're community centers that happen to be gardens. ... How do you quantify that for a grant proposal?"
According to Sally McCabe of the American Community Gardening Association, a Pennsylvania-based umbrella group representing about 500 individuals and nonprofits across the U.S., the unspoken requirements for community garden funding vary from city to city and from year to year, forcing gardening groups to spin their goals in the direction of the prevailing wind. "In the nonprofit world ... you have to go with the trends, and sometimes it goes against the grain," says McCabe. "But you have to remember, it's not about your reputation - it's about the gardens." In Austin, says McCabe, preferential treatment has historically been given to organizations that promote food production, making food security a quicker sell than ACG's mission of beautification and community improvement.
Did inflexibility of purpose have a hand in ACG's demise? One member of the Sustainable Food Center staff, Anna Maria Signorelli, believes that ACG's problem was its adherence to prescription in its mission and garden designs, a discipline which served it well at the wildly popular Sunshine Gardens, but may have been less successful when it was time to write grant proposals and venture into new communities. "It's hard to be always changing your prescription, but I think it's necessary," Signorelli says.
"Nonprofits have to run like small businesses," says Fitzgerald, the Sustainable Food Center director. "You have to really be critical of yourself and make sure the services you're providing are working, are worthwhile, and that you are delivering them in a way that is cost-efficient ... The skills to work on a large, middle-class garden are not the same skills you need to work in a low-income area."
"Show Me the Numbers"But ACG's Fuller, for his part, has misgivings about the methods espoused by the SFC. "Some people in the movement will tell you community gardens are the best thing since sliced bread for providing food," he says. "I think it paints a really incorrect picture. ... My attitude when people say you can save hundreds of dollars by having a garden in your house is, 'Show me the numbers that you haven't fudged.' To sell it solely as a food source does a disservice to the community garden movement."
Historically, the relationship between the Sustainable Food Center and Austin Community Gardens has been tainted, to say the least, by tension. Fuller came to the ACG group after a brief stint at the SFC, vowing to improve on the mistakes he had perceived in that organization. Today, according to Fitzgerald, the organizations are so sharply divided in their purpose that their staff members rarely, if ever, communicate. But the longtime rivals, accustomed to an atmosphere of mutual wariness, may soon be forced to test a middle ground left shaky by occasional eruptions of animosity. "If you've got groups within the same city fighting for the same funds that are working for the same thing," says Sally McCabe, who has worked on nonprofit fundraising in cities across the U.S., "I would say they should stop fighting and get together."
That idea is not a particularly palatable one to ACG staff, who would say only that they are "considering all the options" as they scramble to keep their remaining services afloat. According to Steve Niemeyer, president of ACG's board of directors, an alliance or coalition with the SFC remains "just one of many possibilities" on the organization's roster.
But the longer the group waits to act, the longer dozens of organizations, schools, and community gardens to which ACG formerly provided services are without assistance, money, and technical support. "We're not offering them anything right now," Niemeyer says of the elderly, low-income, and school-based gardens the organization used to serve. "I don't think anybody is very content seeing things as they are. ... If you don't have staff, you can't do anything."
Which is pretty much what ACG is doing. Meanwhile, neighborhoods and community groups dependent on ACG for resources are wondering where to turn. AIDS Services of Austin, which runs a food bank providing fresh produce to clients with HIV and AIDS, has seen a dramatic drop in the quantity of food contributions from ACG's food pantry program - from a high of 3,000 pounds last year to only 335 this year to date. Joette Pelliccia, who supervises AIDS Service's food pantry program, says ACG has provided no explanation for the shortfall, but she is understanding of the nonprofit's financial problems and volunteer neglect.
"I imagine that with the changes that are going on, it just has fallen through the cracks," Pelliccia says. Since the beginning of 1998, AIDS Services has made up for the shortfall out of its own budget, Pelliccia says. "Personally, I was sorry to hear about the funding cuts, because they do provide a real community service." Other gardens, including those at elementary schools and East Austin neighborhoods, have similarly felt the squeeze of ACG's funding cuts.
Hortense Lawson, a member ACG's board of directors who gardens at the group's neighborhood garden on Harvey Street in Central East Austin, hopes the groups served by ACG will be able to continue on their own. "I hope that maybe this will be a strengthening thing for them," she says. But in light of the county's reluctance to fund the organization and the absence of a private donor willing to keep the group afloat, Lawson also acknowledges that options for survival are slim: "We've got to pray for a miracle now."
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