Chelsea Barker '10

Hometown: Brentwood, TN
Sociology and Environmental Studies
Senior Study Title:
“American Urban Agriculture”
Dr. Susan Ambler

Thesis Abstract

In her 22 years, Chelsea Barker ’10 has done more than her share of planting vegetables, herbs and flowers, but what she’s most excited about now are opportunities to plant ideas that can revolutionize the American food system.

“[Urban agriculture] is a concept that has the potential to change our diets, our environments, our health, our destitute inner-city communities and our nation’s future,” she wrote in the introduction to her Senior Study, “American Urban Agriculture.”

Barker grew up in suburban Nashville. Her family gardened regularly, so she developed a respect for food and an understanding of food-land connection from an early age. But she knew not everyone was as lucky.

Declaring majors in sociology and environmental studies during her freshman year, she often saw the intersection of the two disciplines when it came to debates such as population, land usage, health, culture and economics. She was aware, too, that food was impacted by nearly every policy decision in the debates.

While working as a Summer Lilly Intern with Heifer Project International’s Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass., in 2008, Barker learned of two urban agricultural projects sponsored by Heifer that were transforming neighborhoods in two American cities: Added Value in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Growing Power in Milwaukee, Wis.

Viewing Heifer’s educational DVD “Seeds, Hope and Concrete” about Added Value and Growing Power, she was inspired to focus her Senior Study on creating an urban garden and gauging its impact (particularly nutritionally) on urban gardeners.

She took her idea to her advisor, Dr. Susan Ambler, who viewed it as a great opportunity for both learning and teaching. Urban sociology and urban planning are areas of expertise for the associate professor of sociology, so she was excited to work in that population again. Ambler also saw the study as very relevant.

“The majority of the world’s population live in cities,” she explained.

Barker’s study is divided into four chapters. She first studied the history of urban agriculture and urban gardens, starting with archeological evidence that early Native Americans domesticated crops (particularly maize) and animals so that they could settle villages and abandon nomadic life.

Farming moved out of American cities in the 18th and 19th centuries because the Industrial Revolution required land for factories and housing. Smaller campaigns for urban agriculture appeared mostly in times of crises, such as the Victory Gardens of WWII.

For the study’s second chapter, Barker studied the modern urban landscape and farmer, using, among other examples, the slow food movement and First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden.

Citing research from several initiatives, Barker argued the myriad of benefits from small-scale farming, including but not limited to: Improvements in gardeners’ nutrition and physical fitness (through toiling in the dirt and plants) and a reduction in their grocery bills. Air quality is also improved because transportation needs are less.

Barker also found research that showed urban gardening by youth improved success rates for graduation, recidivism, future employment and business opportunities.

Attempting to replicate Brooklyn’s Added Value garden in East Tennessee, Barker connected with Tribe One, a youth empowerment center on the east side of Knoxville. Chapter III of her Senior Study is a case study of the urban garden on the property of the inner-city center.

The connection was largely serendipitous, she said. A friend and fellow classmate was familiar with Tribe One and had recommended that she approach them about starting a garden program.

According to Barker, the center’s director liked the idea because it would “provide an element of wellness and well-roundedness to the repertoire of Tribe One’s offerings.”

It was determined that Barker could plant the garden in April and May and conduct her research while Tribe One hosted a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School. The six-week program was open to third- through eighth-grade students from June 21, 2010 through July 30, 2010.

A $600 grant enabled her to purchase seeds, tools and other miscellaneous costs of starting the garden. Home Depot donated lumber for raised beds.

About 50 youth participated. At the outset, Barker distributed questionnaires to parents and students that were designed to determine whether there was a correlation between an exposure to and/or work in an urban garden and a change toward better eating habits as a result of such exposure.

Barker wrote that the consensus from the first questionnaire was that the urban residents were “interested in eating healthily and being involved in gardening, but lacked the resources.” Their only fears, she added, were bugs and worms.

She first created lesson plans to give them the resource of knowledge. Sessions included a tour of the garden, composting, organic vs. conventionally grown tomatoes and the parts of a plant.

“Exposing them to the plants in the gardens, I really wanted them to see, touch, smell and taste,” she said.

Throughout the six weeks, students helped nourish and harvest blueberries, raspberries, sunflowers, beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, cabbage, collard greens, brussel sprouts, spinach, lettuce, basil, parsley, carrots, squash, zucchini, potatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers and onions.

From follow-up questionnaires completed at the end of the gardening sessions, Barker did see a positive correlation between exposure to an urban garden and improved eating habits.

She wrote: “I was surprised to learn that in the short amount of time the subjects were exposed to the garden, eight (47 percent) had mentioned that they had already changed their eating habits and were consuming more apples, raspberries, cantaloupe, tomatoes, herbs (basil and parsley), and carrots, specifically.”

Almost all participants intended to continue their learning with gardens.

Barker finished her Senior Study in August – just in time to accept an invitation to present her research and findings at the American Sociological Association annual meeting in Atlanta.

“I really wanted to present to the ASA because I believed it would be important to get my research in front of some big players,” Barker said. “And, I thought it was a huge opportunity for the College.”

Currently, Barker is serving in Mali with the Peace Corps as an agricultural extension agent. Ultimately, she sees herself returning to the States to work in urban planning with a focus on food. She said she would love to have a hand in the development of more community gardens.

From both scholarly and practical vantage points, Barker knows what’s possible. Tribe One now has an AmeriCorps volunteer dedicated to the continuation and expansion of the urban garden.

“I am incredibly proud of the progress the program made in the lives of 50 summer school participants, and I am confident that it can be a catalyst for so much more change in the Magnolia community,” she wrote. “… The scholars of Tribe One’s Freedom Schools Program learned that a small plot of land can have a huge impact!”