The Guerrilla Gardner

Gardening is the new gangsta,” said Ron Finley.

In an urban setting such as south central Los Angeles, fresh food and produce is hard to come by. “Food deserts” are areas typically marked by a lack of access or a lack of easy access to healthy foods. The supply is too far away, or people there lack the resources to get to it, or buy it once they get there. They rely on local mom-and-pop shops, the ones that sell processed foods, sundries, and liquor, and fast-food restaurants.

“The study of food deserts is important for every type of community—urban, suburban, and rural—because findings from our studies reveal that residents of food deserts suffer worse diet-related health outcomes, including diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart disease, and premature death,” according to Mari Gallagher, food desert expert and principal of the Marie Gallagher Research and Consulting Group.

One can determine whether they live in a food desert simply by asking such questions as “Can you buy fresh, skinless chicken as easily as ready-made fried chicken? Can you buy whole, raw potatoes as easily as French fries, high-salt chips, candy, and soda? Can you buy fresh tomatoes, or only ketchup?”

Diet is not a “silver bullet,” says Gallagher, “but it is disingenuous to say ‘eat your fruits and vegetables’ when you can’t get them in some neighborhoods. Sadly, in many neighborhoods it’s easier to buy a gun than a pineapple.”

Enter the “guerrilla gardener” Ron Finley, a south central Los Angeles fashion designer gone rogue. His quest to find fresh healthy fruits and vegetables involved a 45- mile round trip. He learned to enjoy fresh juices years ago, and slowly incorporated other healthful habits into his lifestyle. He sees the lack of access to nutritious fare as a conspiracy to keep people sickly and in need of medical services, medications, medical devices, and hospitalizations. In response, he fights back by growing and eating his own fruits and vegetables to stay healthy.

“Gardening is the new gangsta,” he said.

Finley’s not joking. On a well-manicured street of California bungalows, his home, painted a tropical aquamarine, is walled-in, gated, and topped with barbed wire. The grassy strip between the street and the sidewalk burgeons with kale, strawberries, Swiss chard, flowers, and a banana palm that towers over the other humble plants. Inside what looks like the compound of a refugee, succulents grow in pots, and a beautiful nectarine tree bears green fruit. In this backyard operation, he embraces the term “subversive.”

We’re in a war, under siege, and every- body’s asleep at the wheel. Fast-food companies are the terrorists—food terrorists.

The city cited Finley for planting in the grassy space, rather than mowing it and keeping it trim. When the dispute hit the news, the city withdrew its citation, but the journalists and interested onlookers still come. CBS started a documentary on him recently, and he had just taped The Daily Show With Jon Stewart the night before. The fashion designer, now rogue gardener, has been given a platform to protest and radi- calize people who care about their health.

“In America, why should anybody be hungry? Why should we be subjected to eating garbage for food?” “People who have to eat unhealthy foods are controlled by the people controlling the food supply,” Finley said. Just as many suspect the mod- ern, for-profit prison system benefits from years of institutionalized and disenfran- chised individuals, so the medical system and medical services benefit from the poor and unhealthy. The fix, Finley says, could be so simple. A week’s worth of education, a week on a fast or with healthy food “can change your life.”

Finley grew up on TV dinners, fish sticks, and breakfast cereal, like most people he knows. Even though it wasn’t the best fare, it was less processed, he believes, meaning more healthful. He jokes that the cereal for kids made now looks as if it’s made with a 3-D printer, and that Kellogg—the healthy breakfast cereal magnate—would not want to know what’s being passed off as a healthy breakfast now.

Finley shirks the notion that he is a health guru or an expert. He figures that if he can understand healthy eating and simple gardening, anybody can. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the relationship between good soil and a healthy plant, a good diet and a healthy body and mind. Finley does not drink alco- hol or even caffeine. He said he has never been high. He is quick to point out that he is not a vegan or a vegetarian, and he still likes an occasional cookie or slice of cake. He moderates his choices, he said, and makes sure to work out.

“I don’t want to be a follower,” he said, and he doesn’t believe in dictating lifestyle choices to others. Yet he has observed the toll poor nutrition and unhealthy choices have on his community. The worst thing you can say to him now is “everybody has to die of something.”

“Why would you choose to die a slow, meaningless death?”