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Food Not Lawns: An Interview with Heather Jo Flores

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Mar 9, 2020

For many people, the deepest and darkest months of winter is the best time of the year to indulge in fantasies of the coming spring. Some avid gardeners might enjoy thumbing through seed catalogs to find unique vegetables to try out as soon as the ground begins to thaw. Other homeowners, however, will probably be anxiously oiling up their lawnmowers to start once again the weekly institution of mowing the lawn. How we engage with the physical space around the homes we live in says a lot about the values that govern our communities and our individual lives.

Heather Jo Flores in Her Front Yard
Heather Jo Flores in Her Front Yard. Photo Credit: Food Not Lawns

Heather Jo Flores is an author and community organizer that has written a book called "Food, Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community." In the book, she discusses the ecological and social ailments that are tied to one of the most recognized aspects of our built environment: the green lawn. She believes that though gardening might be just a hobby for some people, the simple act of planting a garden and growing your own food is a radical step towards autonomy and sustainable living. She goes on to show how growing food in the spaces around our homes is a strategic and tangible way to connect with the natural world - and our neighbors who share that space with us.

Growing "food, not lawns" is a practical and down-to-earth step that can help all homeowners reimagine our relationship with the world around us. Biophilic architectural design can undoubtedly help us allow the natural world to influence and invade the interiors of the homes we inhabit. However, one of the best ways to reengage with our natural selves to get our hands dirty in our gardens. When we do this, we can discover (or rediscover) for ourselves the constant miracle of life that this planet holds.

Lawn and Fence

The Problem With the American Lawn 

Lawn mowing uses an astounding 600 million gallons of gasoline in the US each year. Green grass monocultures do not occur in the natural world. In this sense, the 40 million acres of lawns spreading from coast to coast are one of the most "unnatural" aspects of our environment. Manicured lawns are neat and tidy, while native prairies and thickets of underbrush might seem "disorderly" to our human minds.

Flores goes on to mention that Americans collectively spend over 30 billion dollars each year on landscaping services and lawn care for their over twenty million acres of lawns. This leads to, on average, an average spend of $517 per household! That same plot of urban or suburban land could easily produce enough vegetables, fruits, and fresh produce to provide every family with a steady supply of nutritious food. In addition, she says Americans use over 270 billion gallons of water each week to irrigate their lawns. She notes that, as the most significant "agricultural sector" in the United States, the space we use for our lawns is not only wasteful but incredibly damaging to the natural environment.

Garden Watering

The Importance of Cultivating Food for Greater Community Health 

The fact that many of the suburban and urban green lawns are divided by fences can separate us from a greater sense of community with our neighbors. In her book, Flores examines how French aristocrats in the 1700s were the first to plant grassy lawns. In that time period, lawns were a way for aristocrats and wealthy members of society to flaunt their wealth. They could demonstrate, with their lawns, that they had enough land to allow some of it to go toward leisure activities. At the same time, small farmers and peasants suffered in poverty due to a lack of access to decent land to grow their subsistence crops. 

Much has changed in the last three centuries. But, lawns are still considered by many to be a sign of affluence and plenty. Nevertheless, with intense cultivation and a permaculture approach, the average American lawn could quickly produce upwards of several hundred pounds of food each year. Throughout America, "food deserts" affect millions of marginalized families who don't have access to healthy, fresh, and nourishing foods. Wider adoption of urban gardens, suburban farms and other examples of food cultivation on a household level would drastically increase food security for millions of people across the country.

Flores relates how her relationship to food shaped her activism and work for a fairer and healthier food system. After years of political activism and community organizing, she felt a need to offer a more substantive response to some of the problems she saw in the world.

Lettuce in a Garden

Flores began a non-profit organization that produced vegetarian meals from fresh, local produce to activists and others involved in community organizing efforts. As opposed to merely trying to tackle the myriad of problems that society faced, for her, the work she was involved in was purposefully directed toward "creating alternatives." She found that food, as one of the essential elements for life, was an integral part of empowerment for both communities and individuals. Through this work, Flores came to discover the ways in which healthy and nourishing food was denied to large segments of the population due to economic, geographic, and other social boundaries. 

Food Not Lawns Book
Food Not Lawns Book. Photo Credit: Food Not Lawns

Food Not Lawns is Born  

In the following years, Flores and some friends founded "Food Not Lawns," a grassroots, urban gardening project that intended to turn wasted resources into flourishing, organic gardens. The organization sought to encourage community members to come together to grow healthy food through sharing their resources, their space, and their ideas. 

Flores believes that creating more sustainable, healthy, and environmentally-friendly livelihoods and communities begins with respectfully treating the land. Growing food instead of grass on the landscapes around our homes is the first step towards that goal. Not only do vegetable gardens, food forests, and other food growing alternatives improve health and increase food security, but the process of growing food can improve health and community coherency. 

freshly picked carrots

Flores says that "whether you live in an apartment, in the suburbs, on a farm, or anywhere in between, growing food is the first step toward a healthier, more self-reliant, and ultimately more ecologically sane life." Learning to grow our food in the spaces around our homes has many benefits. It not only created the opportunity for a healthier sense of community, but it can teach us how to be better neighbors and co-inhabitants with the natural world.

"There are few places in America, or the world for that matter, that provide working examples of environmental responsibility in action," Flores says. She imagines a suburban neighborhood where every home is an oasis of fertility. Each household could responsibly produce thousands of pounds of food. This food could then be shared, bartered, and traded in a community network that would provide a convincing, "working example" of how to live responsibly on this earth.

Food Not Lawns encourages people everywhere to get engaged. Visit the local chapters page to see if your area has one already, and, if not, how to start your own. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-23T16:38:06+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.