Raising Plants and Lowering Crime in Delaware

The phrase “Doing More with Less” is used increasingly to characterize our current austere economic reality. With furloughs, job cuts, and the elimination of important public programs, prospective grantees have even more competition for dwindling federal resources, while grant making agencies have difficult decisions ahead with respect to program priorities.

However, despite the bleak outlook, many organizations are turning financial challenges into opportunities for creative thinking and ingenuity around persistent public safety concerns. With a resolve to truly do more with less, pioneering agencies continue to champion the needs of communities with vigor, seemingly unaffected by budget constraints.

As the first in a series of articles leading up to the 2011 National Community Policing Conference: Advancing Public Safety in a New Economy, Dispatch Staff Writer Lydia Nylander spoke to Chief Michael McGowan of New Castle County (Delaware) Police Department on this important issue.

New Castle County Police Department is a shining example of a resourceful, committed agency, moving ahead with an urban farm and community farmers market in an area blighted by vandalism and drug activity, despite harsh budget cut backs that also plague many other jurisdictions. With little in the way of resources to actively prevent crime, Chief McGowan highlights how engaging the spirit of the community and harnessing a collective desire to revitalize the neighborhood became the only viable option for this problem area.

As a keen gardener, Chief McGowan has always had an appreciation for the outdoors. However, it is his passion mixed with a sober financial reality that cemented plans for the first community garden and farmers market. With sworn officer strength at an all time low for the type of policing service New Castle County residents had come to expect, tough decisions lay ahead for the cash strapped agency. One such decision was what to do with a high crime vacant lot in a low income suburb of Wilmington. With a neighborhood of fearful residents, rampant drug dealing, and vandalism, this area generated proportionately higher calls for service and became an obstacle in the county’s call for more efficient operations.

Chief McGowan recognized that this dilapidated area suffered from a lack of community ownership and that fostering responsibility was necessary to turn the area around, as patrols had to be scaled back. Early last year, in conjunction with the Delaware Center of Horticulture and under Chief McGowan’s stewardship, the New Castle Police Department called on residents to volunteer in creating a community garden. Over 60 residents responded to the call. With BJA funds paying for fencing and the creation of vegetable beds, the “sweat equity” came from officers and residents who, through this project, created a real neighborhood treasure.

image of urban garden in Wilmington, DEWith more than 1,000 volunteer hours donated, the quarter-acre lot is now home to 35 raised beds that residents can rent for a nominal fee. The beds sprout healthy produce such as gourmet mixed greens, radishes, kohlrabi, and kale. “By the time the urban farm was up and running, people who had lived in the same community knew their neighbors. . . .The project also bridged a generational gap, with older residents teaching young teenagers about natural soil fertilizers and the use of insects in agriculture,” said Chief McGowan.
The immediate area had many liquor stores and fast food restaurants, with very limited access to fresh produce. The farm has made an important impact on the social reality of the lack of quality grocery stores servicing the community and the inextricable link with neighborhood obesity.

The urban farm project has also been a conduit to improving trust and collaboration with the police and residents, with officer presence in the community noted for more than just calls for service. By means of collaborations with Habitat for Humanity, Parks and Recreations, and local non-profits, the farm and local farmers market has also become a teaching center for neighborhood youth, and a example of self-sustaining community revitalization.

With urban farms already operating in Boston and Detroit, small-scale, innovative agriculture projects are now playing a pivotal role in increasing access to affordable, nutritious food, supporting residents and community members in reclaiming their streets, and preventing crime. They are a true demonstration of how community focused solutions can transcend budgetary constraints and allow us to truly do more with less.

Lydia Nylander,
Grant Monitoring Specialist,
The COPS Office

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