A fashion designer by profession, Ron Finley found his true calling when he tried to buy fresh fruit and vegetables in his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood—and walked away empty-handed. He had his pick of unhealthy fast-food outlets, but a store where he could buy a decent apple? No luck. So in 2010, on a 150-by-10-foot curbside median outside his home, Finley planted mustard greens, carrots, banana and tangerine trees, and more. Friends and strangers came by to gawk, and Finley told them to help themselves. For many, it was the first fresh produce they’d eaten in years.
Finley taught neighbors how to grow their own gardens. Then he gave a speech that was posted online and went viral, reaching an audience outside Los Angeles. Now he’s traveling the world to spread the gospel and is planning a string of health food restaurants in underserved areas. “I put a seed in the ground in South Central,” he tells Reader’s Digest, “and next thing you know, I’m in Qatar.”
Tell me why you call yourself the gangsta gardener.
If you’re gardening, you’re a gangsta. I don’t care if you’re a 70-year-old mom in Maine or a four-year-old in South Central. Gardening is gangsta. Drugs, robbing—that’s not gangsta. Building community—that’s gangsta. I’m changing the vernacular. If we have to have gang wars, I want them over who has the biggest zucchini.
Were you always a gardener?
We’re all gardeners. Think about it: The first job ever on this planet was gardening. God said to Adam, “Hey, dude, take care of my garden.” Eve, she had the fig leaf and the snake, and then God told Adam, “OK, don’t mess with that.” But the guy didn’t listen, so now we have plastic. You don’t remember that story? [Laughs]
I think we have different Bibles.
That’s Genesis. We all came from gardens.
How does it work? You and a team go to people’s homes, to churchyards, to schools, and start digging?
What I do is show people how to be self-sufficient. But am I gonna do it for you? No! I’m a gangsta gardener, not a guerrilla gardener. I don’t come at midnight, plant, and leave. To me, there has to be ownership. If I’m planting something, I want it maintained.
Why are you doing all of this?
I’m trying to repair a dysfunctional system of food “prisons” around the United States. I call them food prisons, not food deserts, because to find healthy food in poor areas, you’ve got to escape them. We’re imprisoned by bad choices, which result in real harm. Here in Los Angeles, I’ve heard of grade school kids having heart attacks. I’ll repeat that: Kids are having heart attacks! And it’s not for lack of food; it’s just the opposite.
So it’s the quality of the food?
I call it unfood food. A lot of what is available for poor kids to eat is made in a lab. Have you seen the Hot Cheetos and Taquitos videos? Kids are watching a video about a snack food. It’s got a fast beat and high production values. That’s what we’re up against. That’s not food! But there are few alternatives. Gardens are a way for people to get back to the earth and design their life and their realities. It all starts with food. What if their reality is that they really love McDonald’s? So be it. But for many people, if they haven’t seen it, they can’t dream it. I want to show them healthy choices.
How will you convince them to eat their vegetables?
If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. Because now they’ve physically engaged in the creation of life, of something that will sustain their health. When you grow a plant, you realize, Wow, a seed gave me this.
What’s your least favorite vegetable?
It used to be Brussels sprouts, until I knew how to cook them. Now I admire them. When I talk to people about their gardens, I say, “Plant what you like, plant what you eat, and then add to your palate.”
Why do you call gardening a defiant act?
We’re taking our health into our own hands. We’re refusing to rely on big agriculture and fast food. That’s defiance.
Share a moment when you thought, This is why my work matters.
A kid sent me pictures of his “front-yard grocery store.” He plants vegetables on his lawn and median and gives them to neighbors. I got a letter from a guy who passed by an empty lot and thought, When will somebody fix this eyesore? Then he watched me in a garden and realized he was that somebody. That’s why I want my gardens to face the street—to show people they can do this. It’s not magic. It should be like air. Who thinks about air? Nobody. I want growing our food to get the disrespect that air gets.
At Reader’s Digest, we often finish interviews by asking people about their favorite word. What’s yours?
Ecolutionary. When you plant a garden, you’re not just feeding people. You’re healing the planet, the soil, and yourself, all at the same time. Right now I think we need more ecolutionaries. We need more gangsta gardeners. We need more people feeding Mother Earth.