Why The City Should Support Project Grow

Ah, at last we have leadership for what counts in the White House.  Our president and his First Lady are getting their own hands dirty in the White House vegetable garden.  They are typifying the zeitgeist of an era where Michael Pollan is the prophet of eating fresh vegetables raised by one’s own hand and Alice Waters is the exemplar of their preparation.  Everywhere people are digging up vacant city blocks to enjoy the psychological and physical benefits of raising one’s own food.  So what does our city administration do?  It tries once again to cut off our very own community garden program.

On May 18, 2009, the City Council will either adopt a two-year budget, or the budget proposed by City Administrator Roger Fraser will take effect.  This convenient arrangement is apparently in the City Charter.  Fortunately, most years the Council has chosen to negotiate some changes to the administrator’s proposed budget.  Here’s hoping that restoring funding to Project Grow will be one of them this year.

As described in the Ann Arbor News article and a summary slide from the Townhall presentation, the upcoming year is budgeted at about $85 million in revenues, with the following year at about $82 million.  This puts the city into a deficit (expenditures exceed revenues by several million dollars).  So the administration plans to cut out the $7,000 only just restored to Project Grow.  I believe that the motivation for this and other cuts is to restrict the range of services offered to citizens to the bare minimum required by law.  It was also embarrassing to the administration last year when evidence surfaced that Project Grow had indeed requested funding, after it had been stated during budget discussions that they had not.

In an email to a councilmember, Jayne Miller (the Community Services administrator) explained the administrative reasoning behind the cut:

First, and in our view, most important, is the financial status of Project Grow.  Their fund balance, at the close of 2008, is at $59,849 or 98.3% of their operating budget for 2008 ($60,871).  Their proposed budget for 2009 shows a $63,994 operating budget with a proposed ending fund balance of $60,914 (95.2% of operating budget).   For 2010 they show a projected operating budget of $66,072 with an ending fund balance of $61,996 (93.8% of operating budget).  Also, the history of that fund balance has been:  2005 – $54,943, 2006 –  $62,924, and 2007 – $62,948.

Second, there are other “garden” non-profits they could consider consolidating with which may assist in reducing overhead costs.  It is our understanding that Matthai Botanical Gardens approached Project Grow about consolidating their operations, but Project Grow decided not to merge with Matthai.  Growing Hope and Food Gatherers are other non-profits they could consider for a merger.

Third, we do not provide support to any other “garden” non-profit and do not do a competitive review of “garden” non-profits to determine who should be funded, if any.

This is the most classic “doesn’t get it” explanation that I have ever seen.  Note the meticulous detailing of the projected fund balance for each year, down to the dollar.  (That projected fund balance of $66,072 included the city grant of $7,000.)  Huge numbers there.  Then the suggestion that Project Grow should merge with another non-profit.  Growing Hope serves mostly Ypsilanti and Food Gatherers has a huge job doing what it does now to feed the hungry.  Adding on a responsibility like managing Ann Arbor community garden plots would stress those organizations, and they would need more money to do it.  It doesn’t make sense.  (I am not close to the Matthei Gardens question, but I gather that it was a mutual decision not to have Matthei attempt to absorb Project Grow.)

Finally,  the competitive review idea is pure bureaucratese.  Such competitive reviews do happen where there are established programs with dedicated revenue streams (i.e., outside funding or a designated allocation from the general fund), and agencies respond to an RFP.  Human services are often provided in this way.  But Project Grow is a unique program and is the service.

I don’t need this service for myself.  Happily, I have a large back yard and an ever-expanding vegetable garden in it.  But there are a lot of people living in Ann Arbor who don’t have a place to grow their own food.  This is what Project Grow offers.  It is not a “garden non-profit”.  It is our community garden program. (Nelson Meade’s early history of Project Grow tells of the long hard work community activists have put in to achieve this, starting in 1971.)

I was on the Project Grow board briefly in the 1980s.  At that time, the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County pretty much supported the entire program.  (Even now, some of the gardens are located outside the City of Ann Arbor.)  Since then, the organization has engaged in fundraising by holding events and asking for contributions from the general public, though the economic reality is that this will not be likely to pay for expenses.  About half their income (around $25,000)  is from rental fees for the plots, though they have reduced fees for lower-income gardeners.

So what does that huge budget go for?  About two-thirds ($40,00) is for salary and payroll taxes – for two part-time people.  Their jobs are mostly about maintaining and assigning garden plots, working with volunteers, and putting together newsletters and events.  (There is not much “overhead” to cut – these are worker bees.)  The rest is for garden maintenance expenses.  (The city charges them for the water used, for example.)  Most of the gardens are on property owned by the school system.  At one time there were gardens on land owned by non-profits and churches, but most of those were lost to development.  Recently Project Grow has been trying to put some community gardens into city parks, but this has been slow.

City council has often been put into a reactive position on these budget questions – with the question of “so what would you cut” when there is an attempt to add programs back in.  But that is a false equivalence.  The budget is not that  precise, and the question is never asked when an administrative initiative is being funded.  For small amounts like the allocation to Project Grow, it really will come out in the wash.  (Or, to be more explicit, out of the fund balance.)

Council needs to take leadership on this issue, not just for what might be perceived as a narrow constituency, but because it is the right thing for our city.  We are supposedly a forward-looking, environmentally motivated city, poised to offer a quality of life that includes all the best current sensibilities for healthy young people.  Well, folks, this is one of them.  Here are some reasons community gardens deserve support from our leaders.

1. It’s part of building a local food system where food can be produced without a huge carbon footprint, because the broccoli doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles.  (Environment – green – got it?)

2. It’s good for adults who can have access to fresh food, plus the exercise and psychological benefits of growing it. (So is a legitimate addition to the range of recreational choices offered by our parks system.)

3. It’s good for the young.  The Agrarian Adventure is one example of a nationwide effort to make children understand where food comes from and how to eat a more healthful diet, by growing and cooking their own food.  But that needs to be available to all the city’s children. Project Grow has special programs devoted to teaching the young.

4. It’s important for self-sufficiency and social equity.  Our residents who are lower-income (and yes, folks, we still have them) should have a place they can grow their own food.  It can be an important part of the diet for someone on a limited income.

5. Project Grow has made an outreach to persons with disabilities so that they too can garden.

6. It is part of the authentic community spirit of Ann Arbor, as shown by its history (see the Meade account), and it is also a great community-building activity.

7. It is the latest greatest thing, and your President would approve.

8. It is so very little money.  Please.

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