Abstract: Building Racial Bridges? Social Capital Among Community Gardeners in US Food Deserts (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Building Racial Bridges? Social Capital Among Community Gardeners in US Food Deserts

Thursday, January 16, 2020
Liberty Ballroom K, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer Jettner, PhD, Assistant Professor, Auburn University, Auburn, AL
Mary Secret, PhD, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Background & Purpose

This study explored social capital in community gardens in low-income neighborhoods. Community gardens can provide both individual- and community-level benefits, directly and indirectly, across a myriad of domains: physical, mental, economic, social, and civic (Draper & Freedman, 2010; Okvat & Zaura, 2011) and are held as exemplars of environmental social work (Gray et al., 2013). Community gardens are especially lauded as social places that can knit communities across racial divides (Firth et al., 2011), generating bonding and bridging capital.

Social capital has been the predominant theory to explain how community gardens promote individual and community level benefits. However, much of the research has relied on qualitative studies, and have focused on the one’s sense of community (bonding social capital) rather than resources gardeners actually obtain (bridging social capital) from fellow gardeners (Jettner, 2017). Further, while some qualitative studies indicated that community gardens can act as “racial bridges” (Firth et al., 2011), others indicated the opposite (Glover, 2004).


This quantitative study explored these issues in community gardens located in food deserts in the southern region of the US. A convenience sample of 60 gardeners, that represented 10 community gardens, was obtained. Social Capital hypotheses were tested using regression models. Predictors included individual variables, such as demographics and perceptions of racial diversity, as well as the garden’s racial composition (organizational variable). Cross-level regression models were performed using two different aspects of Social Capital, one’s Sense of Community, and the Number of Resources a gardener could obtain from fellow gardeners, as dependent variables.


Results indicated that community gardens were excellent vehicles for promoting one’s Sense of Community regardless of one’s race, whether one was a garden leader or member, how long they have been at their community garden, and the racial composition of the garden. Indeed, the significant predictors were: one’s perception of racial diversity (B= -0.54, p=.037); meeting others of a different race more often in the garden (B=0.29, p=.058); and, socializing more often with fellow gardeners of a different race outside of the garden (B=0.29, p=.058).

However, community gardens were less likely to be vehicles to increase the Number of Resources one could obtain from fellow gardeners. It took longer (B=.62, p=.004) and more effort (B=1.76, p=.074; one had to be a garden leader vs member) to obtain more resources. Further, increased perceptions of racial diversity had a negative relationship with Number of Resources (B= -0.39, p=.004). Notably, the average number of resources one could obtain from fellow gardeners was 4.37 (sd=3.5) out of 16.

Conclusion & Implications

Much of the literature, and practitioners, assume that community gardens automatically benefit everyone, equally. We conclude that the key role for social workers is to focus on how these community gardens are implemented. We argue for anti-oppressive and anti-racist principles, providing concrete ways for social workers to enact these principles based on Cadieux and Slocum’s (2015) outline for what it means to do food justice.