Ron Finley, aka The Gangsta Gardener, is a former fashion designer turned activist and urban gardener. He is a man that is changing the landscape of Los Angeles.
Finley grew up in South Los Angeles with seven siblings. He knows what it’s like to drive 45 minutes just to get a fresh tomato, because the area is an extreme food desert, with many households being very food insecure.
Food insecurity means that families face barriers to purchasing healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and foods that are high in fiber. In Los Angeles, food insecurity effects 43% of households without children and 37.3% of households with children. Chronic conditions of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and depression are more common among people who are food insecure. And, food insecurity is more likely to occur among minorities and low-income communities. This is happening in the largest city in the number one state for food production. (California produces over 1/3 of our vegetables and 2/3 of our fruits and nuts.)
Finley had a career in fashion design, creating looks that were popular with professional athletes and sold in Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstroms, and Neiman Marcus. But, then the recession hit and that career ended. His life took a turn in 2010 when he decided he needed to do something about the growing trend of lack of access to healthy, affordable food. He planted vegetables in the curbside dirt strip next to his home.
This was the first step in his growing revolution. This came with repercussions and run-ins with the law, starting with Finley being cited for gardening without a permit. He was ordered to remove all of the vegetation or apply for a $400 permit. When he refused to pay, an arrest warrant was issued. He started a petition, awakening his neighbors to the hypocrisy of a system that does nothing to help the conditions of what he calls a “food prison” but bars individuals from taking matters into their own hands. He continued to grow in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs.
In 2013, Finley did a TED Talk, and his name began to spread and his ideas about urban gardening planted seeds in the minds of people across the country. That video currently has 3.3 million views on TED, and another 880K views on Youtube.
“I have been an activist all my life; I just didn’t know it. I had no idea that this garden outside my house would create such a movement and be the inspiration that it has. It is amazing to me that my garden has inspired people around the world to not only talk about their health, their food, and their communities but engage in those things as well. All of that came from planting food.” – Ron Finley
Even though he has raised awareness, his guerrilla gardens are still officially illegal under city code. In late 2016, his backyard garden and adjacent house, which he’s rented and lived in for years and where he now runs the nonprofit Ron Finley Project, was bought at a foreclosure auction by a real estate development company. He raised over $500,000 and bought the property.
Finley is planning to build an urban garden in South Central LA that will serve as an example of a well-balanced, fruit-and-veggie oasis called “HQ”. This garden and gathering place will be a community hub, where people learn about nutrition and join together to plant, work, and unwind. HQ will create a myriad of jobs for local residents, and will be a self-sufficient ecosystem of gardening, education, cooking, business learning, and management. The community will get their hands dirty together, shovel together, work together, and be healthy together.
“Gardens build community. Period.”
“Ron is realizing his vision for community gardening and rejuvenation. Let’s grow this seed of urban gangsta gardening into a school of nourishment and change. Help spread his dream of edible gardens, one city at a time.
It’s time for Americans to learn to transform food deserts to food forests. Help them learn to regenerate their lands into creative business models. Let’s make Ron’s philosophy mushroom across the country, and the world.” -The Ron Finley Project
Take a video tour of Ron Finley’s food forest.
Watch Finley’s TED Talk.