During the past five weeks I’ve now been traveling, Blanche DuBois’ line “I’ve always been dependent on the kindness of strangers” has frequently popped into my head. While I am (hopefully) quite far from any mental hospital in Louisiana, I see some similarity between Blanche’s lack of touch with reality and my own ~loosened~ connection with the normalcy and routine of my thousands-of-mile-away life at Northwestern. Furthermore, I have been presented with incredible experience after experience in my travels, all due to the kindness, compassion, and passion of people I’ve never met before!


I happened upon one of these especially incredible experiences on my last designated research day in Hungary. But first, a secret: I scheduled most of my research meetings in Milan and Budapest by sending messages to email addresses on websites I found through Google searches and Facebook ‘Pages’ message inboxes. In Budapest, I connected with many community garden organizers through a list of community gardens on the website of Rosta Gabór’s NGO, Városi Kertek Egysület (VKE). Despite that I scheduled a meeting with Rosta a few days later, the link to that list of community gardens was in fact sent to me by a member of a Grundkert, one grassroots Budapest community garden. And I got in touch with Anna by messaging Grunkert’s Facebook Page and getting referred to her by the garden’s main coordinator, who doesn’t speak English.


Anyhow, what I didn’t realize when sending out ~50 messages to all the emails on the VKE website’s list of community gardens in Hungary a few weeks ago is that not all the gardens on the list are in Budapest. At first, I was bummed to turn down a few invitations to community gardens in cities that weren’t feasible for me to travel to during my time in Budapest. So, I was especially excited when I received a message from Irén, the Vice President of the Community Garden Association in Székesfehérvár. Irén welcomed me to visit two community gardens in Székesfehérvár, which is just an easy train ride from Budapest.[*]


I didn’t end up taking that train, however, since one of Irén’s daughters offered to drive me instead. Furthermore, rather than take the car ride by highway, Hajni offered to drive me and my friend visiting from Chicago along the scenic route, through the farms and sunflower fields of Northeast Hungary. As a wine expert, Hajni’s route also included a tour of the Etyek vineyards along the way. Something that would not have been nearly possible with public transportation. And notably, Etyek is fewer than 30 kilometers outside Budapest, so it satisfies my Budapest definition of “local food”!


One continuous excitement for me on this trip is how people’s interest in locally-grown food rarely ends after the crops’ growing stages. Rather, people like Irén are also passionate about cooking and eating local food, which serves (no pun intended) for wonderful experiences (mostly meals) beyond my interviews and community garden visits. In Irén’s first message back to me, she not only invited me to visit Székesfehérvár’s community gardens, but she also invited me to her home for lunch.


After an early departure from Budapest, we arrived in Székesfehérvár a bit after noon, just a few minutes late for the traditional, Hungarian lunch Irén prepared for us. We were welcomed into her home to meet the rest of the family members, and I was stunned by the beautiful plants placed throughout the home. Hajni had described to us the story of her mother’s three greenhouses during the car ride, but what I hadn’t previously considered the idea of one’s home acting as a greenhouse as well. Mostly just during the winter months, I was told!


Despite all the delicious food I’ve eaten in Hungary, it was such a treat to eat a home-cooked meal. It was an even more special treat to eat the most local-possible food in Irén’s home—she picked the majority of the vegetables in our meal from her garden that morning. Furthermore, a traditional Hungarian meal would not be complete without beverages, which in this case, included home-made cherry juice, pálinka, and wine. (Wine- and pálinka-making credits go to Irén’s husband.) And of course, dessert.

As large metropolitan areas, each of my study cities share certain key characteristics, such as having a high concentration of human and financial capital, advanced food supply chain infrastructures, social movements towards shorter food supply chains, and barriers to the development of those shorter food supply chains, which may be amplified by lack of political, corporate, or public support. There are some notable differences within these broad topics, for example, how the intensity of land development pressure within a city obstructs/interacts with urban farming developments. (Budapest has over 2800 hectares or > 3% unused space within the metropolitan area, which sets it apart from cities with extremely limited landscape and high rates of development, like Kampala and Singapore.) Nonetheless, my primary study cities this summer, each which has over a million inhabitant, are distinguished economic and cultural hubs, which may both prompt and inhibit local food system development and regeneration.


Székesfehérvár, a historically royal town of 100,000 people, doesn’t experience the exact same challenges regarding local food systems development that Budapest does. As Hungary’s 7th largest city, it’s not nearly as much in the spotlight as Budapest regarding economic, land, and community development initiatives. Regardless, I thought visiting community gardens in Székesfehérvár would provide an ideal opportunity to better understand the incentives for creating and challenges and successes of community gardens that apply to larger and smaller urban areas.


Székesfehérvár’s two community gardens were founded four years ago by the city’s Community Garden Association in close concordance with the Local Council. In Budapest, I studied gardens created and led by NGOs, Local Councils representatives, and grassroots organizations (local community members). Across this range of management systems, I repeatedly learned about how challenging it is for garden leaders to maintain a functioning community garden, whose functions include providing a lively social environment, a community support system, and the proper resources to enable high-quality urban farming.

The established management infrastructure of Székesfehérvár’s community gardens helps ensure that the city’s two community gardens maintain a dynamic, functional presence within the broader community of Székesfehérvár’s Community Garden Association, local schools, and adjacent neighborhoods. During my visit, I met with leaders of the Community Garden Association, garden supervisors, and the Local Council representative. Both gardens rely on the consistent dedication of these three different stakeholders to sustain the garden’s successes. Nonetheless, that isn’t to say being in a small city necessarily puts Székesfehérvár’s garden leaders at an advantage in how easy it is to dedicate their personal resources towards the gardens’ upkeep. For example, the supervisor at Palotavárosi Közösségi Kert told one thrilling story of her struggle while standing in the rain at one of the garden’s social events, soon after she’d moved into town. To her surprise, the garden members called upon herself—and herself only—to hold an umbrella over the pork fat frying on the fire beneath her. The umbrella eventually got caught in a gust of wind and was returned by a neighbor to the garden the next day, but by that time, the garden supervisor had already saved the day at the rainy garden party.


I’m currently grappling a bit as I analyze the various stories of challenges and success of community gardens that I visited in Budapest. I’ve observed one key, repeated challenge of how to maintain gardens’ community networks and lively social environments amidst people’s individualistic mindsets and habits and lack of free time and energy resources. NGO employees, local government representatives, and motivated community members have all earnestly described to me how many garden members simply show up to plant their own crops for their own benefit and do not partake in any community events. Many unpaid (and some paid) garden coordinators have also emphasized how much consistent effort is require to organize the social events and communication networks that a community garden needs to keep the ‘community’ in its title.


From my research in Budapest, I was inspired to learn how much power and potential individuals have in community and food systems development. I met one individual who lobbied seven Budapest districts governments to create community gardens, one intern who visited each of an NGO’s five community gardens once a week, many garden coordinators who organize robust garden social calendars, and so many other passionate individuals who work over hours or for free to maintain their gardens—what amounts to a small yet significant component of Budapest’s growing civil society and community development.


And fun surprise link here:

[*] I actually received two separate emails from each of Irén’s daughters—slightly differently translated versions of a warm welcome message to Székesfehérvár.