The first time I learned about community gardens was when I started school at Binghamton University. I volunteered with a nonprofit called Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments (VINES), and together over the course of a few hours, the other volunteers and I built a community garden on Front Street in Downtown Binghamton. At the time, I learned that this community garden was instrumental in alleviating food insecurity Downtown. What I had yet to learn about was the abundance of other benefits that community gardens also offered throughout history and still offer today.

A simple definition of a community garden is something like this: a community plot or collection of individual plots of land in which residents can grow fruits and vegetables. But a community garden is much more than just a plot. It is a place where residents can congregate, collaborate and grow together as a community. It is a place where victims of poverty or prejudice can gain back their power and dignity. It is a place not only where crops are grown, but where better lives and societies are created.

Let me explain.

The first community gardens appeared in the United States during the 1890s in response to an economic recession. Many industrial laborers had lost their jobs and sources of income, and so they faced great difficulty accessing food. Beginning in Detroit and spreading to other cities, community garden programs were implemented to alleviate this hunger and poverty.

After the recession of the 1890s, community gardens became an educational tool used by teachers to improve the lives of their students. Fannie Griscom Parsons, an advocate of children’s gardening, wrote that through community gardens, children were able to learn important virtues such as “honesty … self-government, civic pride, justice, the dignity of labor, and the love of nature.” Still today, community gardens are used to teach students about topics such as nutrition, history and environmental stewardship.

During the World Wars, citizens were urged to grow food in “war gardens” and become “soldiers of the soil.” Not only did these efforts boost patriotism and morale, but they also helped to offset the amount of food exported to Europe. During World War I, there were 3.5 million war gardens that together produced around $350 million of crops, and by the end of World War II, there were nearly 20 million gardens that together produced an astonishing 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States at the time.

After World War I and World War II and into the 1960s and 1970s, community gardens were built to improve the appearance of blighted neighborhoods that had been neglected due to racial prejudice and the disinvestment that resulted. Community gardens became places of beauty and peace. They became opportunities for residents to take back their power and pride.

Finally, the newest community gardens that have developed are known as climate victory gardens. These gardens are being used as a tool to fight climate change and environmental degradation. Because people grow their food nearby, they purchase less food that has been shipped from across the globe. These gardens encourage more food scraps to be composted instead of being thrown away into a landfill. They revitalize soil health so that the soil is able to store carbon that is otherwise left in the atmosphere.

By studying the role of community gardens throughout history, we can see that they’ve been important tools in a wide variety of societal issues. Especially in the city of Binghamton, they continue to be important tools. Considering the food desert that currently exists Downtown, community gardens could potentially alleviate some of the consequences of food insecurity. What fascinates me most is that the community gardens built here not only help alleviate food insecurity, but that at the same time, they are also a tool for education, empowerment, neighborhood beautification and environmental activism.

Georgia Kerkezis is a sophomore majoring in environmental studies.