One of inner city Los Angeles's most pressing concerns is the lack of access to affordable, healthy food. The Community Health Council reported in 2008 that the 60 grocery stores in South Central Los Angeles serve an average of 22,156 residents, compared with affluent West LA, whose 57 grocery stores serve an average of 11,150 residents. This led the CHC to refer to South Central as a "food desert," or more specifically, a neighborhood bereft of the kinds of dining options most Angelinos take for granted. If no grocery store exists near one's home, but a fast-food restaurant is just a quick drive away, the fast food will win more often than not. That reliance on low-quality food has been shown to push residents of the inner city to crippling health problems. The same study showed that 35.4 percent of adults in South Central suffer from obesity, whereas the number is only 10 percent in West LA and 22.2 percent countywide.
South Central resident Ron Finley found a solution: grow your own food in your neighborhood, and forget the cheeseburgers. But in May 2011, his garden was cited by the Bureau of Street Services for obstructing parkways, not having a permit, and growing the wrong kinds of plants. Upon finding out about the citation, locals became outraged, helping Ron successfully petition to keep his garden. The press surrounding the petition earned Finley an invitation to give a TED talk last February. Recently, I met Finley in his garden where we talked about what he plans to do with his newfound influence as a botanical celebrity.
VICE: Do you think your message would have spread so far if the city hadn't tried to make you remove your garden?
Ron Finley: No. That's why I say, "Embrace your haters." 'Cause they're gonna make you famous. It was timing. It wouldn't have happened if Steve Lopez didn't do his column in the Los Angeles Times. It wouldn't have happened if Jesse Dylan at Wondros Media didn't do a film of me and TED hadn't found the film. They wrote me this scary-ass email that says, "Ron, we've been watching you." Scared the shit out of me. I thought it was a joke. Thought it was somebody playing around. Come to find out it's true. And I had never done a PowerPoint. I had never been on stage like that. But I killed it! And I wound up with a big hit.
What made you start gardening?
It was basically to beautify, but also I wanted people to be assaulted with smells. I wanted jasmine and lavender and different flowers. Vegetable gardens, to me, are not that sexy. One single crop, usually. I want pretty. I want colors. I want different heights. I want different structures. I want to take your eye all over the place. I want your senses to go somewhere. Your vision, your sense of smell, your sense of taste, your sense of touch is all in the garden. The garden is nothing more than a metaphor for life, because everything happens there. Every living function happens in the garden, and that's real.
Not anyone can just plant a garden like this.
Anyone can. Anyone. We're all gardeners. Truly, we are soil. Ashes to ashes. We decompose, and what's left there? We share 50 percent of our DNA with bananas. Get some healthy soil. Get some seeds. Put some starter plants in there. Water it. Take care of it. And it grows. Plants are just like us. They're just like children. You give them healthy food and what happens? You get a healthy child. You give them unhealthy food, you put them in an unhealthy environment, what do you get? Unhealthy child. Unhealthy plant. It doesn't grow. It doesn't mature. The brain function's not the same. There's a disconnect there. These schools should change that, and flip it so that the school is in the garden. Not the garden in the school.
Ron Finley works in his garden.
What kind of work have you done with schools?
I've helped a couple schools with workshops and lectures and stuff like that, but I'm not set up in the schools. Dealing with the schools is like having sex with the devil. If the schools had wanted to change the game, if they wanted to flip the script, they would have a long time ago. They know that all kids don't learn the same. I was one of those kids. I was dyslexic. I didn't learn like everybody else. We have this spandex-pants education system where one size fits all. And if you don't get it, you don't get it. That's why I think it should be changed. It should be in a garden. Kids are tactile. They want to fuck shit up and run around and we're breaking that spirit when we sit them in a classroom. I don't know why these clowns don't see it. You have them sitting in a chair for hours and hours where they're warm and hot blood.
You can design your own life. That's the message I want to give them. Stop living someone else's reality, because they're gonna set you down a path that they've already set up for you. You can step out of line and say, "I'm not going down that path." Kids don't know that there's a system that says, "We want you to do this. We need you to do this. We need you to fill our facilities. We need you to take our medicine when you get to a certain age." You can't tell me that these schools that have all this garbage food, that they don't know it's garbage. We only have 69 cents to spend on a meal for a kid or whatever the hell it is. So you feed them shit? That's not cool. They could be growing the food at these schools and that's a lesson, that's a class for these kids. And the kids can eat from the garden, you know. And they will be more adaptive to eat fresh, nutritious food because they grew it. They're part of it. I like to tell people that one of the worst diseases in these inner cities is the lack of opportunity. They can't see a different kind of future. If you don't expose people to different kinds of things it's hard for them to imagine that there's something else.
What we're doing with the Ron Finley Project is changing that. Container cafés in gardens. We're having [shipping] containers made into cafés and putting them into neighborhoods. I don't want them on the boulevards. I want them in the neighborhoods. So you can walk across the street and get a healthy meal. It will be attached to a working garden that will most likely have plots that people can rent.
Will it just be in LA?
You start a local thing global. I've got requests for other places around the world. Eventually it's gonna be around the world. I wanted someone to see my vision. I have met people now that see it. Especially after this TED. It's really been insane. I've been from Greece to Kauai, from New Zealand to Brazil. I'm opening SXSW Eco [this] month. I'm going to Qatar. All this from planting a seed in the ground.
Pretty much. It's on some quantum shit right now. What it's done has shrunk my life, but it's increased my web. So much. I need some sleep!
Kids in India are calling themselves "gangsta gardeners." This father from India Facebook-ed me and he sent pictures of his kids planting and propagating some stuff. He said, "Now my children are calling themselves 'gangsta gardeners.' They're recruiting other gangstas from the neighborhood to start gardens."
When people invite you to all these countries to get your advice, what do you tell them?
Plant some shit.
So you travel all that way just to say that?
Just plant something there. I did this thing, the Idea Fest in Louisville, Kentucky, and you know they asked me, "What inspired you?" And I said, "Air. Air inspires me every day." We take air for granted. Because you can't see it, but it's the one thing that's most important in our life. Not water. Not food. Not your baby daddy. Not your daughter or your husband. Air. Every morning when I wake up, I celebrate air. That's what inspires me.
More on gardening: