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Pick up your shovel; grow a better city

By Ron Finley, Special to CNN
updated 5:59 PM EDT, Fri March 22, 2013
  • Ron Finley: South Central Los Angeles is a "food desert" with few healthy alternatives
  • He says one key to improving health is getting children involved in change
  • Finley says gardening is therapeutic and promotes idea of healthy eating

Editor's note: Ron Finley is an artist, designer and co-founder of He spoke at the TED2013 conference in February. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- As a lifelong resident of South Central Los Angeles, I refuse to be part of the social system that breeds problems rather than solutions. South Central is a "food desert" where the lack of healthy food alternatives leads to obesity and preventable disease.

I have raised my sons in South L.A., and it is heartbreaking to see so many young kids on a trajectory to nowhere, potential high school dropouts prey to gangs, drugs, violence and incarceration.

So where do we start to create positive change?

I believe that change starts from within, and unless you want to take the first step, change will never happen.

Ron FInley is organizing efforts to grow healthy food in the \
Ron FInley is organizing efforts to grow healthy food in the "food desert" of South Central Los Angeles.

We need to take the responsibility to be the creative force in our society. We need to be the gardeners of our society. Ron Finley's talk on gardening in South Central

So instead of waiting for others (the city or other units of government), I decided to take my shovel, my weapon of change, and start gardening.

Change begins with youth and healthy role models. Gardening takes care of both. It builds community.

Children learn what they live. If children live with hostility, they learn to fight. If they live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive. If they live with criticism, they learn to condemn. If they live around alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food and violence, this is what they will reproduce in their lives and in society in general. This is a vicious circle that needs to end.

My vision is that gardening can do that -- and my organization has been planting gardens in South Central, including ones on city-owned land.

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If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. But when none of this is presented to them, if they're not shown how food affects the mind and the body, they blindly eat whatever you put in front of them.

When kids learn to grow vegetables, they learn not only how to eat in a healthy way but how to be productive and are armed with a value system that will help them to navigate in their lives -- values such as patience, appreciation, sharing, honesty and respect.

You will be surprised how kids are affected by this. One day, I was out in my garden attending to my sunflowers when a teenager passed by with his earphones hooked up, listening to his music. When he saw the huge sunflowers in my garden, he was taken aback: "Yo! Is dat real?" He was screaming. A few days later, he joined us in the garden.

TED Blog: A visit to Ron Finley's garden

But gardening's therapeutic effect is not only for kids. I have been to homeless shelters to install gardens. People will come around and will start telling stories of gardening with their mothers and grandmothers. I see hopeless faces light up; I see the seed of hope where none existed before, and this is for me a great reward.

Our society -- not just South Central -- suffers from social corrosion. Due to the economic crisis, parents have to work long hours (if they are lucky enough to have a job), and often, kids are neglected. In many cases, kids grow up with their TV set as parent.

Technology offers more ways of nominal communication, but our society tends to promote actual isolation. It is crucially important to cultivate nourishing relationships and human connections, and gardening can definitely do that.

So who do you want to be: a bystander or a force of positive change?

Pick up your shovel, bring some compost and come meet me in the garden.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ron Finley.

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