Power in seeds: Urban gardening gains momentum in pandemic | Miscellaneous Crops

NEW YORK (AP) – On a cluster of vacant lots and unused land in the Bronx, gardeners from low-income neighborhoods have come together to create over a dozen farm hubs to coordinate their community gardens and crops.

A few years ago, some discovered that their small gardens together could grow enough peppers to mass-produce hot sauces – Bronx Hot Sauce, to be precise, with profits from sales reinvested in their communities.

During the pandemic, the Bronx’s agricultural centers once again proved their strength, producing health-promoting crops like garlic, kale, and kale.

“The trick is, how can we learn from the pandemic to really become resilient?” Said Raymond Figueroa-Reyes, president of the New York Community Garden Coalition.

“When the pandemic broke out, urban agriculture went into hyper-productivity mode. People saw that the (food) donations received were not sufficient in quantity or quality and that there is no dignity to wait for this kind of charity, ”he says.

The Farm Hubs are part of an urban gardening movement across the country that aims to empower residents of poorer neighborhoods by encouraging them to grow fresh food.

Areas (both urban and rural) with little access to healthy, fresh food are known as “food deserts” and are typically high in diabetes and other diseases such as high blood pressure and obesity. In cities where many see the phenomenon as inseparable from deeper issues of race and equality, some community leaders prefer terms such as “food prisons” or “food apartheid”.

Ron Finley in Los Angeles has been a leader in urban gardening for years. He sees gardening as both therapeutic and an act of defiance.

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” says Finley, who leads the nonprofit Ron Finley Project. “It’s not just about food, it’s about freedom. It’s our revolution and our eco-solution. “

Finley grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he says he had to drive 45 minutes just to get a fresh tomato. His efforts to rejuvenate communities through gardening included planting vegetables on neglected park paths and other unused land, as well as teaching online courses to a global audience about the power of growing food.

Millions of Americans live in neighborhoods with no healthy food. The same neighborhoods are magnets for fast food restaurants and the packaged groceries available in drug stores and convenience stores.

“The drive through kills more people in our communities than the drive through,” says Finley. “I want people to come back to reality, touch the ground and take back some of the things that were taken away. If you plant a seed, it will multiply. It’s a currency. It’s a valuable resource. That’s empowering. It’s about more than just food. “

In the Bronx, Karen Washington, who has promoted urban agriculture for decades, said it was about “food justice.” (She helped coordinate the pepper cultivation that led to Bronx Hot Sauce; the company they worked with, Small Ax Peppers, now makes hot sauce using community-grown peppers from Queens, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, and other cities .)

“Healthy food is a human right, as is clean water,” she said.

As a board member of the New York Botanical Garden, Washington worked with neighborhoods to turn vacant lots into community gardens and helped launch the City Farms Market, which brought affordable fresh produce from community gardens or upstate farms to a weekly farmers market in the Bronx.

She co-founded Black Urban Growers and helped found the Black Farmer Fund, which aims to provide black farmers and entrepreneurs with access to capital.

COVID has had a huge impact on people wanting to grow their own food, and Washington said it is seeing more people growing food on city terraces and in yards across the country.

“In the early stages of COVID, before the vaccines hit the market, it really got more urgent. If we want to fight viruses, especially in these diabetic and obese neighborhoods, we need to eat healthy, ”says Washington.

“People said we need to get into these dead spaces and grow food,” he says. “There’s a collective effort to organize farm hubs with the idea of ​​growing more immune-boosting foods and getting them to where they’re most needed.”

The New York Botanical Garden has long provided technical assistance to community gardens through its Bronx Green Up program. It stepped up its efforts when the pandemic broke out and worked directly with the community farm hubs. Organize bi-weekly Zoom meetings to help with problem solving, resource sharing, and harvest distribution; and providing more than 10,000 herb and vegetable seedlings.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we teamed up with long-standing community partners and realized that food insecurity has always been a major problem in the Bronx,” says Ursula Chanse, the program’s director.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest now in community gardening and more urban farm space,” she says.

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