A community garden in one Urbana neighborhood has helped its residents overcome two prevailing issues: crime and food insecurity.
The Lierman neighborhood has faced consistent challenges with property maintenance, food insecurity and crime over the years – until 2012 when its community garden launched.
“The last four years have been real quiet… I’ve been here for about 15 and a half years now in Urbana. So, the crime is going down and the neighborhood is cleaned up. I think [Lierman Neighborhood Action Committee] and the garden is doing a lot for this,” said Tommy Alkins, neighborhood association president.
Alkins handles food distribution and is involved with caring for the community garden. Alkins said he also receives a food pantry from the McKinley Church and distributes it to the community.
The Lierman neighborhood is located in the southeast Urbana area of Illinois, bounded by east Washington, Kinch Street, east Florida Avenue and south Philo Road.
Lierman’s population is 1,843. Black residents make up 60% of the population while White residents make up 34% of the population, according to 2018 U.S. Census data.
The neighborhood association has particularly focused on the development of the Lierman Community Garden located on the corner of Washington and Lierman Avenue.
The garden offers fresh produce for the community and it is grown by volunteers. Community residents can rent a plot of land to grow their own produce. It has been supported by organizations such as the McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Urbana Park District.
As a result of the garden, the neighborhood is not facing the same amount of food insecurity compared to 2012, said Robin Arbiter, previous Lierman resident and LNAC board member. However, food issues are still occurring in the community.
“Among poor households, until we have a better, more generous way of dealing with food poverty, there’s always going to be food scarcity. Where people are struggling to pay for groceries and food stamps, in environments where transportation is limited and affordable shopping is a little bit limited,” Arbiter said.
Alex Winter-Nelson, professor in agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote in an email that food insecurity exists because of poverty and weaknesses in the United States social safety net.
According to Feeding America, the 2020 food insecurity in Champaign county is 15.7% of households compared to 11% in 2018. Winter-Nelson said the increase of food insecurity is a result of economic stress caused by COVID-19, such as loss of jobs and lack of access to public support.
Despite the improvements, James Moreland, Lierman resident and a previous association president, said there are still residents who can’t afford to go buy fresh, organic food and it’s a main problem in the community.
“Lierman decided to do a garden so it will be cheaper for people to come and get organic food. Plus, people that come can get their own plot to rent and use. That brings money back into the garden to do a bigger garden next year,” Moreland said.
The money that goes to the garden is used for its own expenses, such as for supplies and utility bills, according to Moreland.
Arbiter said the purpose of the garden was to not only provide produce for the community, but it also help decrease the appearance of police in the community.
Residents felt uncomfortable when police would park in front of their neighborhood. However, after the garden was placed there were less police around the community, according to Arbiter.
“To have them (police) there on that corner with the capacity to look a full block down the neighborhood was inhibiting. I would say, you know, anxiety provoking and perhaps intimidating for those who are worried about their kids getting home safely,” Arbiter said.
Although the garden has been successful in the eyes of its residents, the current association board is facing issues due to the death of its secretary, Richard Ziegler, and food donors’ health issues from organizations such as the McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church, according to Roberts.
“Some certain members of the church who are very actively supporting the garden are no longer able to do so. We need to reconsider how our garden can be managed in the future,” Roberts said.
Shirley Brown, current association treasurer, acknowledged the issue of management, but she said it will not cause an impact on the community as of now. Brown looks forward to the elections in December to determine the next secretary.
“When we have our elections, we will be in a better place to determine and move forward. So, we know, looking forward to the things that we need to do. We’re looking at our strengths and weaknesses now to see where we are headed and what we can and cannot do,” Brown said.