In the community garden at the Fort Stanton senior citizens park in Southeast, sprawling vines with orange flowers bear yellow squash, and necklaces of cherry tomatoes ring cones of wire. Fist-size deep-purple eggplants peek from under leaves, and lumpy pods of black-eyed peas look ready to burst.
There are beans and broccoli, carrots and cantaloupe, collards and cabbage, peppers and peppermint. The corn silk is beginning to brown, so ears of sweet corn will be ready soon, and the watermelon vines are spreading out of control.
For people such as Norma Perry, the garden provides more than a hobby. Gardening is an important source of food for her, because a trip to the supermarket is an event for the 74-year-old Anacostia resident.
In lower-income neighborhoods, gardens and farmers markets provide an alternative to supermarkets, which are few and far between. To get to a grocery store, Perry sometimes has to catch a bus one way and take a cab back, a trip that costs about $8 and takes at least a half-hour longer than it would if she had a car. Other times her daughters take her to Maryland, where "the prices are cheaper and the food is seemingly better," she said.
Perry limits herself to supermarket trips every other week and grows what food she can, spending time in the garden every day. She freezes string beans, peppers and tomatoes for vegetable dishes and stews. But squash is her specialty. She makes squash lasagna, squash pudding, steamed squash, acorn squash pies and squash patties. When she goes to the supermarket, she rarely buys vegetables, she said.
The last full-service supermarket in Ward 8, where Perry lives, was a Safeway on Milwaukee Place near Martin Luther King Avenue SE that closed in 1998 after the company said it was losing $500,000 annually.
"Retailers look at how development is going, income, homeownership rates and construction of new homes," said Aubrey Thagard, the District's Ward 8 planner. "Retailers haven't been fully convinced or understood the potential" in Ward 8, he added, though he cited plans for a new Giant supermarket on Alabama Avenue SE as a sign of a changing tide.
A 1995 study by the Food Marketing Policy Center of 21 major cities found that the lowest-income Zip codes had one-third fewer supermarkets per capita than the highest-income Zip codes.
In areas such as Ward 8, people often buy food from corner stores, which have higher prices and frequently lack fresh produce.
At the Corner Market in the 1400 block of Howard Road SE, a gallon of milk costs $3.99 and a loaf of white bread $1.29. Those items cost $3 and 79 cents, respectively, at the Safeway at Alabama Avenue and Good Hope Road SE. The Corner Market, which is the closest food store to Perry's house, has canned vegetables but does not sell produce or fresh meat, nor does it offer any of the services that a large grocery store provides, such as a pharmacy.
Urban gardens provide an alternative that gardeners say is economical and high in quality. Every dollar invested in a community garden can return $6 worth of vegetables, according to a 1996 federal study.
Betsy Johnson, executive director of the American Community Gardening Association, said the estimated 18,000 urban gardens nationwide represent a rapidly growing sector of the gardening industry.
During World War II, victory gardens helped rations go further and allowed more commercially produced crops to be sent to troops overseas. In the 1970s, urban gardening boomed in East Coast cities as they suffered from disinvestment and vacant lots proliferated, Johnson said.
Now housing pressures threaten some gardens, including the Fort Stanton one, which faces an uncertain fate because developers recently bought the land, said Addie Cooke, 74, a gardener and the president of the Fort Stanton Civic Association.
Gardens "provide a tremendous outlet for immigrants to grow the food they're used to eating," Johnson said, citing the lemon grass, fava beans, Asian squashes and callaloo, a green grown in Jamaica, that can be found in community gardens in Boston.
They also offer recreation for seniors. Cities "don't think twice about creating ballparks and other recreational facilities," Johnson said, but nonprofit groups, not cities, usually spearhead community garden projects, "the basketball courts for the elderly."
Community gardens of all sizes dot Ward 8, and in Perry's neighborhood, some people grow fruit trees as well.
Tucked away on 14th Street SE between U and V streets, cabbages, beets and onions grow in a few neatly tended beds in one of the area's smallest gardens.
On the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, Community Harvest runs a 1.3-acre farm called Urban Oasis that markets its produce from the end of May to October, said Sam Augusta, a farmer for the organization. The produce is sold at the Anacostia Farmers Market, which has prices comparable to or less than those of most supermarkets, said Ariele Foster, the local food alliance director for Community Harvest.
About 1,500 volunteers, from members of corporate boards to schoolchildren, work on the farm. They help to grow common items such as lettuce and less common ones such as kohlrabi, which is in the cabbage family.
The land Community Harvest leases also is slated for redevelopment, but the group hopes to work out an agreement with the city for a new location, Foster said.
She promotes urban gardens as an important way to help provide safe, healthful, culturally acceptable food. They also foster self-reliance and avoid production processes that exploit workers, she said.
In Ward 8, however, "we're quite far from this ideal," she said. Nonetheless, gardening and the fruits and vegetables it produces can help lower the risk of diabetes, obesity and other medical problems.
The gardens also are an important place for social interaction for senior citizens such as Perry and Cooke. They said a community revolves around Fort Stanton's eight garden plots, where the gardeners know each other and often trade food.
Gardening is not without its costs and difficulties, though, Cooke said. Most of the gardeners at Fort Stanton hire people to till the soil, and all water not provided by rain barrels must be carried in. But it's worth it, Cooke said, because the garden offers a respite from the rest of the city and a beautiful improvement of a vacant lot that was once a gathering spot for drug dealers.
Cooke pointed out another benefit of urban gardens: teaching city kids where food comes from. "It's kind of hard to get them to understand they're planting corn," she said of children from the Fort Stanton Recreation Center who work at one plot.
"They think all corn comes in a can."