‘Naturally in our DNA’: Community gardens and urban farms spread through Omaha

Growing up on a hill overlooking North Omaha during World War II, Mary Carpenter remembers the numerous vegetable plots, called Victory Gardens, that dotted her Florence neighborhood.

“Everybody had one,” said Carpenter, the reporter’s mother-in-law. “We grew everything – asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, black raspberries, pears, even grapes. That’s what fed us and supplemented our food.”

Over the ensuing decades, many of those gardens disappeared as grocery stores started carrying seasonal produce year round. Yet 80 years later, everything old is new again. 

Drive anywhere in the Omaha metro – West, North, South O, Midtown – and you’ll see a community garden or an urban farm.

People throughout Omaha are returning to practices that nourish, sustain and strengthen communities, a movement that started around 2014 and has grown exponentially in the ensuing eight years.

Vacant lots have been turned into attractive green spaces. Food is being grown for people with accessibility issues. Community gardens are offering produce not always available in grocery stores. 

Omaha’s self-proclaimed “urban ag guru,” John Porter, an educator with the Nebraska Extension office, believes these gardens are proliferating because the “foodie” movement created an interest in food and the story behind it. The pandemic heightened it. Many people now want more control – particularly when supply chains are broken and shipments are delayed. 

“They want to support the local economy,” Porter said. “But above all, it’s about access to fresh food.”

City Sprouts was one of the first organizations in Omaha to address that access. Established in 1995, the nonprofit now boasts 45 garden plots and the Decatur Urban Farm in North Omaha, which features fruit trees, berry bushes and community programming.

Manager Shannon Kyler said the difference between community gardens and urban farms is scale. The first generates produce, often in raised beds, for a specific community; the latter is more about large-scale production. “At an urban farm, we’re planting, harvesting, processing and distributing. And we’re using a tractor. You name it, we grow it.”

In addition to local communities, City Sprouts’ produce goes to organizations like the Food Bank for the Heartland and Bountiful Harvest food pantry. City Sprouts serves hundreds of area families every day, Kyler said. “This is a really super localized way to address access to fresh food,” he said. This feels like you are sharing with the community and not an act of charity.”

Nancy Williams founded the grassroots nonprofit No More Empty Pots in 2010 to improve self-sufficiency, economic resilience and regional food security. She pointed out that access isn’t always limited by income. Often, it’s tied to issues like transportation, mobility issues and language barriers. Senior citizens who can no longer drive, for example, often rely on public transportation. 

There is also the challenge of living in food deserts, where grocery stores are scarce and quantity and quality of food are often inferior.

The First National Bank of Omaha skyscraper looms in the background as (from left) Lizandra Lorenzo, Magdelina Pascuel, Nancy Scott, Josh Perez and Juana Sanchez tend to the crops at the Pop-Up Oasis garden at Leavenworth and 13th Streets. The community garden, which incorporates indigenous farming principles, is one of dozens of new community gardens and urban farms that have sprung up in Omaha in the past decade. Photo by Abiola Kosoko for the Flatwater Free Press

Williams encountered that when she moved from West Omaha to North Omaha in the 1990s. She grew up in Louisiana, where she participated in 4-H and her family maintained a garden. 

Williams wanted to feed her four children the way her parents had fed her. She had to drive out of North Omaha to do it. “I had the means to leave to shop,” she said.  “My neighbors did not…They wanted to feed their kids what I was preparing for mine. I realized the discrepancy.”

Land usage has been a driver behind addressing that discrepancy. In 2014 the City of Omaha Planning Department saw community gardens as a way to ease the blight of vacant lots. With the help of No More Empty Pots, eight were transformed into community gardens, the first located in North Omaha’s Prospect Village. 

Today, there are 58. 

Gus von Roenn wanted to get involved in the effort, so he founded Omaha Permaculture in 2015 to create a seasonal gardening agreement for city-owned empty lots in low-income neighborhoods.He looked at the map, he said, and it showed that North Omaha’s Adams Park neighborhood was pockmarked with empty lots.  “That underutilized land was so sad,” he said. “It was often used as a dumping ground for trash.”

Omaha Permaculture cleaned up designated properties and remediated soil to establish 17 community gardens. The majority of produce is distributed in the community, including to homeless shelters and social service organizations like Black Men United.

A major unacknowledged benefit: A noticeable reduction in crime, von Roenn said. “We’ve looked at retro crime maps, and if you click on one of our community gardens and look at the crime statistics, we do observe a dramatic decrease. Just the act of keeping a lot clean and dignified makes an impact.”

Terri James, associate extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, agreed. “When community gardens go in, we see lower crime rates. The areas get cleaned up, and garbage gets picked up. There’s less vandalism. It goes hand-in-hand with having more people having community pride.”

Shannon Kyler, manager at City Sprouts, doubles as a beekeeper, tending to the non-profit’s bees. Founded in 1995, City Sprouts now boasts 45 garden plots and an urban farm in the metro area, Courtesy photo

There’s also historical pride. Clarice Dombeck founded the Healing Roots Garden on 24th Street in 2021. Inspired by her own family history of sharecroppers and backyard gardeners, the recent University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate sought to create a space that acknowledged her cultural heritage.

Using African American heritage gardens as a template, Dombeck and roughly 60 volunteers plant Truelove seeds, which are culturally significant to the Black community. They grow produce like collard greens, Paul Robeson heirloom tomatoes and fish peppers. Some of the selections were historically grown by enslaved people. Others were brought by Haitian refugees. There’s a sense of legacy behind every vegetable harvested.

“I wanted to do something for Black culture,” Dombeck said. “This is an African diaspora garden where all the plants are related to or symbolize Black cultures around the world.”

That kind of connection is also evident in the Pop-Up Oasis on Leavenworth and 13th Streets, which incorporates indigenous agricultural principles, specifically those from native Omaha and Cherokee people. 

Audrey Woita, the Pop-Up Oasis’ director of operations, said that the group uses Native American “Four Sisters” planting techniques. They plant beans, which introduce nitrogen into the soil, squash and indeginous corn.

“The fourth sister is sunflowers,” Woita said. “They give shade to the others and feed the soil and the birds – and in a Nebraskan twist, they protect them from the wind.”

Community gardens also play a significant role in helping refugees and other immigrants make connections in their new home country. 

Christine Ross, founder and CEO of the Refugee Women Organization of Nebraska, is part of the New American Urban Farm Program, located on the Omaha Home for Boys’ Cooper Farm. The farm provides training, education and fresh produce for refugees and immigrants, many of whom reside in food deserts and struggle with language, transportation and financial barriers when purchasing groceries.

Ross said many refugees grow frustrated when they can’t find familiar produce. So the program’s focuses on planting favorites from native countries.

She’s from South Sudan, where blackeyed pea leaves are a delicacy. Many Asians enjoy blackeyed peas, too, she said. “We realize how much we share, how much we eat the same foods, even if we cook them differently,” she said.

A main driver for community gardens remains feeding people. The Nebraska Extension Office’s H.O.P.E. Garden – “Helping Omaha’s People Eat” – provides several tons of fresh produce every year to the Heartland Hope Mission in South Omaha. Situated near West Center Road and 165th Avenue at the Faithful Shepherd Presbyterian Church, the garden is run by a crew of 20 master gardeners. 

Don Uzendoski, a H.O.P.E.’s gardener, said the garden’s “number one focus” is on feeding the hungry. The gardeners pick and process crops every Tuesday and Friday morning. Within 90 minutes, a truck transports it to the food bank. 

Demand takes the guesswork out of what to grow, he said. Onions, potatoes, garlic and peppers are perennial favorites for their long shelf life. 

These kinds of stories encourage James, who believes the explosion of urban farming is a quintessentially Nebraska story. 

“We do have a farming background here,” she said. “People want to continue that. It’s just naturally in our DNA in Nebraska.”

By Kim Carpenter

Kim Carpenter is a freelance writer and author based in Omaha. She has worked for the Omaha World-Herald, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts and the Akron Art Museum. She has covered visual and performing arts extensively for local, regional, national and international publications and has written books and catalogues profiling artists and their work. Kim earned her Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University and was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany.