When was the last time you contemplated planting your own food? For gardener and activist Ron Finley, self-sufficiency through the act of planting food is more than a necessity: it is a rebellion against a system bent on destroying opportunity for a healthy life. Go to any major city in this country, and the have and have-nots become distinctly apparent, particularly in regard to access to healthy food. From South Los Angeles to Bed Stuy, there are more fast food restaurants than access to vegetables. Ron Finley seeks to change that.
Disturbed by the inability to buy a fresh piece of produce in his South Los Angeles neighborhood, Finley began growing a garden in his backyard where a pool once sat, and then later a sidewalk garden outside his home. Neighbors were enamored by the sight of kale and sunflowers bursting out of the ground. Finley was on to something. In 2010, he founded a volunteer organization that installs vegetable gardens in vacant lots and sidewalk medians in areas without access to healthy food. During his now famous TED talk, Finley took the Internet by storm with his passion for gardening, unapologetic call to action and now well-know slogan to “Plant Some Sh–.” EBONY chatted with Finley about his love affair with the soil and plans to take over the world.
EBONY: There are many descriptions of you online: renegade gardener, farmer, gardening gangsta. How would you describe yourself and what you do?
Ron Finley: Gangsta gardener, provocateur and game changer. I say game changer because I have helped change the look of my community, people's lifestyles and gotten city ordinances amended. The Los Angeles City Council has granted everyone the right to plant food in their parkway if they choose.
EBONY: Did you ever imagine that your TED talk would be so well received?
RF: No, this is some quantum thing. You can't predict this. Even before my TED talk, this is not something that I planned. It's like putting the pebble in the water and not knowing what's going to happen with the ripple, but I knew I was on to something. The day my talk was released on the Internet, I got on my computer and saw that people had already started writing about it and it hit like 100,000 views that first day.
I just started crying because of the acclamations and all the inspiring words. How I inspired that kind of stuff blew me away and it hasn't stopped. Who would have imagined that something so simple would be special, that planting food would be a major act of rebellion? The way I see it, we are all gardeners and artists. We are supposed to fight and we are supposed to take action.
EBONY: What kind of issues did you see in your community that prompted you to want to take action by growing food?
RF: Sickness, and people being malnourished, especially kids. Kids are being fed crap and then expected to excel in school. Schools are already breaking these kids because they have them sitting around all day. Kids are supposed to be engaged; they need movement and they should have the opportunity to get dirty. We should demolish the school system the way it is now. I don't know who it's serving. Our schools are nothing but incubators for the prison system and then after that it's easier to find a dialysis center than an organic tomato in the community. I got tired of the fact that that we are bred for certain industrial complexes. Our communities are being terrorized by food companies. The only way to change is if we are the changers. Our politicians are allowing this to happen, and it happens over and over again. We have to take our health into our own hands. It's not anybody eles's responsibility. Your health is your responsibility. We need to get back to that. It's terrible because there's a proliferation of these fast food companies in the neighborhood and you can't get any kind of healthy food. It's almost like legal genocide.
EBONY: Why do you think growing food is so powerful? What are some of your favorite foods to grow and eat?
RF: It is powerful because as the saying goes, we are what we eat. You have kids who aren’t exposed to real food because they are being fed things like hot Cheetos and takis for breakfast. It is powerful because you are taking responsibility for your food. It has already been proven that food companies don't care. To grow your own food, especially with children, they become a part of the process. They are proud of it. If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. But, if you don't expose this to them, they don't know where real food comes from. They won't even know french fries come from potatoes.
When I plant my garden, it is more so for aesthetic appeal than production. I like to plant foods that are pretty, like purple Chinese mustard greens, purple sage and lavender. I want people to be smacked upside the head by beautiful smells, like jasmine flowers. I want them to pass by and not only get a visual of beauty, but also get their five senses touched. For me, the garden is nothing but a metaphor for life. I like to plant things people don't see in our communities because I want to add to our community. I want people to ask "what is kohlrabi," so we can slowly add more things to our palette. Food production has been limited in the sense where there might be 400 kinds of carrots, but we might only know of three.
EBONY: What is one of the most rewarding experiences you've had with someone in your community?
RF: Just recently, this little girl stopped by the garden with her father. He was taking her to buy a skateboard. She was the essence of life; it made my whole month just meeting her. She was full of questions and it was instant love. I was like 'damn I wish all kids were like that.' Instead of wanting to buy her skateboard, she wanted to be in my garden. I see women, children and men seduced by the soil. I love that. I love the conversations people have about the garden, or to wake up at 6:00 in the morning and see someone just standing on the street, looking at the garden.
EBONY: If someone said to you they simply don't have the time or resources to grow their own food, what would your advice to them be?
RF: I would say that's BS. Get a bag, a trash can, a tea cup– even a paint can and put some soil in it, put a plant in it and take care of it. There's no excuse. There's a way to be creative and grow your own food and it doesn't take much. I know with some people, because of the legacy of slavery, there's this attitude of 'I don't do dirt.' They don't understand that yes, we had to do it, but it was powerful. We don't see the power in it and a lot of people can't get over that stigma. How do you think the slave owners got rich? From us digging in the soil. Let's flip that script. Let us dig in the and get rich, get healthy and give our children life lessons. All of our life's lessons are in the soil. A little seed can grow into a 40-foot tree. What can be more powerful than that?
EBONY: What's next for your garden initiatives? How do you plan to continue the movement?
RF: The mission is world domination. I'm working with a couple of people and we have a diabolical plan for world domination. (laughs) It's a diabolical plan, do you really think I'm gonna tell you? My mission and agenda is simple: plant some sh**.