Meet Ron Finley, the Gangsta Gardener

Ron Finley’s garden in South Central Los Angeles is nothing special. What he has done with it is.

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There’s a garden growing in South Central

Ron Finley, a fashion designer by trade, found his true calling when he tried to buy fresh fruits and vegetables in his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood — and walked away empty-handed. He had his choice of unhealthy fast food restaurants, but a store where he could buy a decent apple? No luck. So in 2010, Finley planted mustard greens, carrots, banana and tangerine trees and more on a 150-by-10-foot curb in front of his house. Friends and strangers came over to yawn, 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 plant their own gardens. He then delivered a speech that was posted online and went viral, reaching an audience outside of Los Angeles. Then he began traveling the world to spread the gospel while planning a series of health food restaurants in underserved areas. “I planted a seed in South Central,” he says, “and before you know it, I’ll be in Qatar.”

Tell me why you call yourself the gangsta gardener.

If you garden, 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, robbery – that’s not gangsta. Building a community, that’s gangsta. I change the vernacular. If we have to have gang wars, I want them to be about who has the biggest zucchini.

Were you always a gardener?

We are all gardeners. Think about it: The first job ever on this planet was gardening. God said to Adam, “Hey, man, take care of my garden.” Eve, she had the fig leaf and the serpent, and then God said to Adam, “Okay, don’t mess with that.” But the man didn’t listen, so now we have plastic. Don’t you 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 graveyards, to schools, and start digging?

What I do is show people how to be self-sufficient. But am I going to do it for you? No! I’m a gangsta gardener, not a guerrilla gardener. I don’t come at midnight, plan and leave. For me there must be property. When I plant something, I want it to be maintained.

Why are you doing all this?

I’m trying to fix a dysfunctional food prison system in the United States. I call them food prisons, not food deserts, because to find healthy food in poor areas, you have to escape them. We are trapped by bad choices, which lead to real damage. Here in Los Angeles, I’ve heard that elementary school kids have heart attacks. I repeat that: children have 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 unhealthy eating. Much of what is available for poor children to eat is made in a lab. Have you seen the Hot Cheetos and Taquitos videos? Children watch a video about snacks. It has 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 return to Earth and shape their lives and their reality. It all starts with food. What if their reality is that they really love McDonald’s? So it will be. But for many people, if they haven’t seen it, they can’t dream it. I want to show them healthy choices.

How are you going to convince them to eat their vegetables?

When kids grow kale, kids eat kale. When they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. Because they are now physically creating life, from something that supports their health. When you grow a plant, you realize: Wow, a seed gave me this.

What is 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 it to your taste buds.”

Why do you call gardening a rebellious act?

We take our health into our own hands. We refuse to rely on big farming and fast food. That’s resistance.

Share a moment when you thought, this is why my work matters.

A kid sent me pictures of his ‘front yard supermarket’. He plants vegetables on his lawn and median and gives them to the neighbors. I got a letter from a man who walked past an empty lot and thought, “When will someone fix this eyesore?” Then he looked at me in a garden and realized he was that person. That’s why I want my gardens to face the street – to show people that they can do this. It’s not magic. It must be like air. Who thinks of air? No one. I want to grow our food to get the disrespect that airs.

We often end interviews by asking people for their favorite word. What is yours?

Ecolutionary. When you plant a garden, you don’t just feed people. You heal the planet, the soil and yourself at the same time. Right now I think we need more ecolutionaries. We need more gangsta gardeners. We need more people feeding Mother Earth.

Next: 10 Surprising Ways Gardening Is One Of The Healthiest Things You Can Do.

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