See the Seeds of Change Grown by One Bronx Woman

“The first plant that changed my life was a tomato,” says Karen Washington, a black urban farmer in the Bronx. “It was the one fruit that I used to hate.” But after watching one that she’d grown shift in hue from green to yellow to red and taking a bite of it, she was instantly hooked. “When I tasted that tomato, when it was red and it was ripe, and I picked it off the vine, [it]…changed my world because I never tasted anything so good, so sweet. I wanted to grow everything.”

For a quarter century, all manner of trees and flowers, fruits and vegetables, have thrived across abandoned lots in the Bronx because of Washington. Deemed “the queen of urban farming,” she’s an African-American woman who’s dedicated her life to greening New York City’s poorest borough. Since 1985, Washington has assisted dozens of neighborhoods build their own community gardens, taught workshops on farming and promoted racial diversity in agriculture.

Your food “is not from a grocery store, it’s not from a supermarket. It’s grown in the ground,” she says. “You have to understand where your food comes from. It gives you power.”

A lifelong New Yorker, Washington grew up in a public housing project on the Lower East Side. She moved up to the Bronx in 1985 and bought herself a newly built home, which she viewed as, “an opportunity, as a single parent with two children, to live the American dream.” While some gentrification occurred, other parts of the low-income neighborhood looked “like a warzone,” dotted with abandoned buildings. Some of Washington’s windows looked onto an empty lot filled with garbage and rusting cars.

One day, she noticed a man walking by with a shovel and a pick — an unusual sight in Gotham’s concrete jungle. “What are you doing here?” Washington asked. He told her he was thinking about creating a community garden. “I said, ‘Can I help?’”

“I had no idea about gardening. I didn’t have a green thumb,” she recalls. Despite that, a city program that leased undeveloped lots for $1 gave Washington and her neighbors lumber, dirt and seeds, “and we gave them power — muscle power — and hopes and dreams to turn something that was devastating and ugly into something that was beautiful.” Within days, the first seeds of the Garden of Happiness and Washington’s lifelong activism were beginning to sprout.

Ever since, Washington has helped others in the Bronx locate empty neighborhood spaces that are prime real estate for something to blossom and led volunteers through the process of opening a community garden — earning her respect throughout the Big Apple and beyond. She holds positions on almost every board imaginable, including the New York Community Gardening Coalition, Just Food and the New York Botanical Garden. “Can you imagine, a little girl from the projects on the board of the New York Botanical Garden?” she asks in disbelief, her smiling face framed by her dreadlocks.

And then there was the time she met First Lady Michelle Obama. Washington describes feeling, “the elation of the spirits of my ancestors. I just felt them clapping and cheering, because here I was, a black woman, standing in the presence of the First Lady.”
Blooming with daffodils, tulips and hyacinth, the original purpose of Washington’s first community garden — the Garden of Happiness — and others like it was “beautification,” Washington says, “about taking away the garbage” from a disadvantaged minority community. Only later did she start to think about greenery beyond being decoration or as a food source. “When I first started initially in the food movement, I was focused on growing food. It wasn’t until I was in that community garden that I started hearing social issues like low employment, poor health, people who couldn’t afford rents,” Washington says. She learned she had to “feed people’s body and mind.”
To promote equity and fairness, she’s recently been focusing on boosting the number of African Americans in agriculture through BUGs — or Black Urban Growers. The most recent agricultural census figures show 55,346 farmers in the Empire State are white and only 113 are black.
It’s always been a dream of Washington’s to purchase land upstate for a farm, but every time she counted all the zeros in the real estate listings, it seemed impossible. Drawing on her connections, Washington met a businessman interested in launching a farming co-operative in Chester, N.Y. They started growing veggies on three acres of black dirt in January. Located just an hour from the city, Washington hopes the rural-urban relationship will help African-Americans have a better understanding of how food systems work and have a chance to participate.
“Farming’s in our DNA, but [we] never have that conversation, always being pushed to the side as the consumer or the person with their hand out, never the type with their hand in the conversation,” Washington says. “There’s no agriculture without culture, so having people understand that slavery was part of our life, it doesn’t define who we are. … [We’re] trying to have people understand that. Don’t be afraid to put your hands in the soil, don’t be afraid to garden or farm because that’s who you are.”

The Community Garden That’s Bringing a Forgotten Neighborhood Back from the Brink

In Liberty City, a predominantly black neighborhood northwest of Miami’s central business district that’s been devastated by a century of misguided urban policies, is a patch of green. It’s almost something out of a storybook, this community garden: A group of hardwood trees (known to ecologists as a hammock) where the branches are weighed down with plump tropical fruits and swarms of butterflies dance about.
It’s all the more surreal given the contrast with the landscape surrounding. When NationSwell spoke with Roger Horne, director of community health relations for Urban Greenworks, in early June, a 10-year-old boy had just been shot six blocks away at the Liberty Square Community Center, a popular local hangout where kids play basketball. The boy survived, but the bullet remains lodged in his left calf, and he needs a walker to move. “I thank God he ain’t dead, that God gave him a chance … again, you know, a second chance in life,” his mother tells the Miami Herald.
Urban Greenworks isn’t waiting around for second chances. Using the simple act of gardening, the Miami nonprofit is bettering this down-and-out community. As we detailed in the first part of this series, the group fosters as much life in its gardeners — at-risk teens from low-income neighborhoods, youth remanded from drug court to rehab and prisoners in the municipal jails — as in the flora it’s tending. But the plants’ actual fruit is equally important to Urban Greenworks’s mission. In Liberty City, Horne and his colleague James Jiler are promoting access to fresh and healthy produce in a “food desert,” by growing vegetation in neglected lots and tending to an urban forest — all while giving jobs to the neighborhood’s underserved population.
Educated at Cornell University and Virginia Commonwealth University’s medical school, Horne, just like Jiler, came to Miami from New York City (Brooklyn, to be exact). Since he’s been in the palm-tree city, Horne served as community liaison or board member for any and all groups working to help Liberty City’s youth: the Miami Mayor’s Youth Council, the public school’s student advisory board, the city’s urban forestry committee, the Urban Environmental League of Greater Miami, the Consortium for a Healthier Miami-Dade and and the Circle of Brotherhood, a black male empowerment group. While all that’s major resume fodder, Horne’s not out to pad his credentials or garner publicity. (In fact, it took NationSwell days of attempts before Horne found a free minute to talk.) He does the work because he cares about the neighborhood kids and their future.
Horne’s also an inventor of sorts. He likes testing out new models, molding them until they’re bearing fruit (so to speak), then sharing what he’s learned. “One of the things that we always tell the kids that we work with is, ‘You have to adapt. If something doesn’t work this year, don’t be afraid to change it next time,’” Horne says.
Two of his signature initiatives include setting up a farmers market that’s actually affordable to residents — all $1 for each bundle, not the inflated prices that Whole Foods and other corporations have conflated with the term “organic” — and Hammocks in Da Hood, a program to restore native trees in underutilized lots. His latest idea, still in the works, involves urban aquaculture and mariculture, raising tilapia in two 1,600-gallon aquaponic tanks at a local high school.
“Folks often talk about feeding the community, but they think there’s only one way to feed them,” Horne says, which is why Urban Greenworks is training people to breed and raise fish. “If you have enough of the community doing it, you can feed more people and create an income source from selling large tilapia online if you grow it in volume.”
Liberty City has one of the largest concentration of African-Americans in South Florida. As with other formerly-segregated cities like Baltimore, it’s a section of Miami that began as an enclave of black culture, the “Harlem of the South.” Because middle-class African-Americans shared Miami’s northwest quarter with low-income minorities, a plethora of well-regarded institutions — from nightclubs to churches — popped up alongside shacks that provided poor living conditions to impoverished blacks. First known as Colored Town and later renamed Overtown, the teeming neighborhood once composed as much as 40 percent of Miami’s population.
The area got its start as federally designated overflow for Overtown, when white business leaders wanted to expand downtown’s footprint. In 1937, Liberty Square, a New Deal-funded public housing project, opened five miles farther north of downtown. “It’s a pretty hardscrabble street. The project is a series of one-story long rowhouses, all attached and set in squares,” Jiler describes. Redlining and racism kept black residents stuck in the quarter, eventually leading to Miami being the most segregated of the largest metropolises in 1940, 1950 and again in 1960. By the time an expressway sundered Overtown, displacing nearly 20,000 residents, the neighborhood had long fallen into physical disarray. Not surprisingly, it’s where riots broke out in 1980 when three policemen were acquitted (by an all-white jury) in the death of Arthur McDuffie, a prominent African-American businessman.
Today, ask some local government officials to point out Liberty City on a map of Miami, and it’s likely that they’ll scratch their heads. And don’t expect to find it on any official map of Miami, either. City bureaucrats still refer to it as Model City, after its signature housing projects. Only the residents call their home Liberty City; they’re some of the only ones that identify it as a place of possibility and freedom.
Sadly, the others who foresee a vibrant future for the neighborhood are those who could change it irrevocably. In land grabs, developers could clear out blocks of residents to make room for swanky, amenity-stocked condominiums. Miami’s growing rapidly, and this historically black community will likely see new demographics. “Liberty City is five minutes from downtown, five minutes from the arena where the Miami Heat play, five minutes from the port, the largest port on the East Coast,” Jiler explains. “There’s new businesses, people are buying into it. It’s a neighborhood in transition.”
In the meantime, Horne believes the gardens are rebuilding the rooted tendrils that hold the troubled neighborhood together. Last spring, he expanded Cerasee Farms, the group’s ground zero for urban farming, across the street to another blighted lot. By October, nearly 100 seventh-graders constructed 20 planting beds with cinderblocks, doubling the farm’s production.
The farmers’ market has more sellers than ever before, and it’s finally gained the permits required by the city. (Municipal funding, however, is a different story.) “When Roger and I first had a farmers’ market in Liberty City, the city [of Miami] came and closed us down. There was no permitting, and there was no process for this kind of open-air market anyway. There was no zoning for music, drumming, food being sold, and different vendors and kids,” Jiler says. “Three blocks away, we saw helicopters flying. Two cops had been shot and killed. Meanwhile, they’re shutting us down while we’re doing something positive for the community.”
Horne has since worked extensively to change the city’s ordinances so these kind of open markets can be held on a regular basis. The latest idea from Horne involves the market lowering its prices by subsidizing other farmers’ produce with money from subscription buyers (CSAs) outside of the neighborhood and actual crops harvested on Urban Greenworks plots, like tomatoes, corn, okra, four kinds of kale, two kinds of cabbage, spinach and broccoli.
“Most of the stuff people are buying at WalMart or Winn-Dixie… is colorless. White, brown, orange — never really anything green. Our plates aren’t colorful, and the nutrients come from the colors on your plate,” Horne says. “The idea is to show folks how food tastes when you grow it. We show it’s not hard to buy organic. We try to make it affordable for them so they’re not afraid to try [cooking] it and mess up.”
The Hammocks In Da Hood program, too, is offering Liberty City residents the same amenities you’d find in Miami’s wealthier areas. “When you look at global warming and the disparity in wealth between communities, it’s usually the canopy that matters. The wealthy neighborhoods in Miami like Coral Gables have one. In Liberty City, there’s no canopy, no shade, no trees,” Jiler says. “Our idea is to raise the canopy in Miami with edible fruit trees and native trees. The hammocks have largely been destroyed in Miami for redevelopment and replaced by inexotic, institutional and industrial land. We’re carving out our niche and recreating a native landscape for the marginalized in society.”
Starting young, Urban Greenworks is teaching Liberty City’s youth sustainability and self-reliance, while also rejuvenating the century-old projects. With greenery returned to its public spaces, the land is finally living up to its name: a free city and a model one.
“The people of Liberty City have been starting to fight for their rights. [Gentrification] is coming, and they see it coming. They see the developers and the vision for Miami. Some of it will be lost, the community is starting to be taken away. I’m very optimistic the community will keep some of the current things going,” Horne says. “Regardless of all the violence that happens on a daily basis, we’re still a neighborhood and we’re still a community. I hope it doesn’t lose that.”
READ MORE: What Kale and Arugula Have to Do with Reducing Recidivism
SEE MORE: 15 Photographs that Reveal the Beauty of an Inner City Garden

15 Photographs that Reveal the Beauty of an Inner City Garden

Passion fruit vines cling to a chainlink fence surrounding a lush oasis of fruit trees, vegetable planters and palms in the midst of inner-city Miami. The garden, Cerasee Farm, is a project of Urban Greenworks, a Miami-based nonprofit using agriculture to bring opportunity and healthy food to underprivileged communities. Named for a medicinal Caribbean vine that sprouts wherever land is disturbed, Cerasee is just one of many projects started by the organization since it was founded in 2010.
Read more about Urban Greenworks here and here.
Photos by Ryan Stone for NationSwell.

From the Boardroom to the Farm: Meet the Woman Helping African Refugees Make a Living Off the Earth

With its downtown high rises housing global oil companies, and its vast, sprawling suburbs that can only be reached by navigating packed freeways and dizzying highway overpasses, Houston does not seem to be a place where a farmer could find a quiet corner to coax a harvest from the soil. But thanks to the unlikely partnership between a co-founder of a software company with nary a notion about gardening and a small group of African refugees with deep roots in the Congo’s fertile soil, several small urban farms are flourishing — bringing hope and joy to the immigrants and fresh produce to their neighbors.
Plant It Forward was established by Teresa OʼDonnell, co-founder of Bridgeway Software, who says, following the success of her company, she was “looking for a means to give back to the community.” The group’s genesis was sparked by a story in the Houston Chronicle about the problem some Iraqi refugees (many of them doctors and engineers) were having finding jobs. “I thought it would be a good fit,” O’Donnell says. So she contacted Catholic Charities, a major worldwide force in refugee resettlement efforts. They implied that helping these Iraqi professionals settle was not much of a challenge compared to the giant problems facing immigrants with few skills.
Houston is the number one refugee destination in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. Some 70,000 immigrants from 78 countries have settled in the Texas metropolitan area since 1978 — many drawn to its healthy economy and low housing prices.
To help make her aware of their needs, Catholic Charities suggested she accompany a volunteer that was meeting refugees at Houstonʼs international airport. “It was a seminal moment,” she says. OʼDonnell watched as nine people disembarked, “all wearing the same shoes, carrying the same bags, all wearing a name tag and all unable to speak English…I thought, ʻOh my god! They don’t have a chance.ʼ” From that moment she was committed to find a way to help.
MORE: It Wasn’t Easy to Welcome 25,000 Refugees, But Boy, Is This Town Glad It Did
Many of Houston’s African refugees arrive from the war-torn African Republic of Congo-Brazzaville where the earth yields so-called “blood diamonds” and rare metals used to manufacture smartphones and tablets. That same land is blanketed with some of the world’s most fertile soil — a happy circumstance for its multitude of poor citizens. O’Donnell learned that many of the refugees farmed small plots in their home countries, giving her the notion that perhaps they could make a living or get some economic benefit from urban farming.
After meeting with local pioneers in the urban farming movement, O’Donnell set up Plant It Forward, a training program that helps refugees farm crops suitable to the Houston climate (including taking advantage of the region’s two-harvest-a-year cycle) and develop sales skills.
In May 2012, the program leased three acres on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, and later that year, the first class graduated. Now, the organization has increased in size from one to three urban farms (the other two are located at a local church and at a large community garden site) and in scope — including additional classes in urban gardening and business skills. And for the first time ever, this year’s group includes several women, which is particularly important given that female African refugees have a hard time finding jobs due to their lack of English language skills and little educational history, O’Donnell says.
Initially, Plant It Forward aimed to help supplement the income refugees earned by working menial jobs like janitorial services. But it became apparent that, due to the program’s success, some could develop an urban farming business that would provide their entire income. By farming small plots — around two or three acres — and setting up weekly vegetable and fruit stands, several graduates of the program have been able to live off the land and develop a solid, profitable relationships with customers who look forward to the weekly harvests.
One of Plant it Forward’s stars is Sarment (his last name withheld because many refugees harbor understandable fears given their traumatic history). The 51-year-old is a native of Congo-Brazzaville where he had worked as a taxi driver before fleeing and becoming a refugee in neighboring Gabon for 10 years.
“I left the Congo because of the war,” Sarment says through an interpreter. “I left and went to Gabon,” he says. “They told me that I couldn’t drive a taxi because I was a stranger…I made a garden there. In Gabon, I had three people who worked with me in my garden. I was the boss. My garden there was 150 square meters. I mostly grew tomatoes. I also grew eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, sorelle, roselle [hibiscus]. We would sell the vegetables at the market,” he explains.
His garden was a success, but one day, “the military came and said you can’t stay here — if you stay, I will kill you. If I kept farming, they would put me in jail or kill me. I was the boss, so I was in danger, not my workers. After that, the United Nations said it was not safe for me, so they sent me to America.” On Feb. 22, 2010, Sarment, his wife and family arrived in Houston.
In May 2013, Sarment graduated from Plant It Forward’s agricultural program and now operates his one-acre farm in Westbury, a suburb of southwest Houston. He is what the program dubs an “independent farmer,” earning his full income from the produce that he grows. (According to OʼDonnell, independent farmers can gross $30,ooo to 40,000 a year or more in the program.)
Life is good for Sarment now. He and his wife recently welcomed their sixth child — a baby boy — and also his first grandchild. He is taking English language classes and practices with customers at the weekly farm stand sales. “I can work with my family to build my farm and go home and all is good,” he says. “Language is hard — [but farm] work, for me, no problem. I can say itʼs all okay for me in the garden.”
As for his future? “Iʼd like to stay in America. I’d like for my project with farming to grow. I want to stay here, not return to my country. For me — I need my family and my farm. Today this work is small like this. And tomorrow,” he says opening his arms up wide and grinning, “it will be big!”
OʼDonnell, who works full time as the director of Plant It Forward, has big dreams, too. She is working to lease more land and has met with city leaders not just in Houston, but also other cities to explain the concept.
Houston’s neighborhoods have proved enthusiastic about having access to fresh produce, which Plant it Forward sells at stands located at its three farms and at the city’s Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers’ Market on the weekends. The organization also offers a farm share program that delivers its goods to homes on a subscription basis, and O’Donnell is also working to deliver produce from the farms to local chefs.
More so than anything, O’Donnell is excited about the success of this community-building program, which connects her “pioneer farmers” to empty land “that was just being mowed every week”  — satisfying “the huge demand for local food.”
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From the Battlefield to the Farm: How Two Iraq War Vets Found Their Passion as Foodies

Steve Smith and James Jeffers, both 38, first met serving with the United States Army at Fort Hood, Texas, in the tense years after the 9/11 attacks. They became fast friends, but when they received different assignments, they set off on their separate ways. Over the years, their paths would diverge and cross, until eventually the two friends would come together back home in Texas and forge an unexpected business partnership — as farmers. The two veterans had a lot of healing to do after their tours in the Middle East, and they found comfort, sustenance and a revived sense of serving their community by digging their hands into the dirt around their homes in a Dallas suburb.
The first time Smith and Jeffers reconnected, it was pure coincidence. Smith had briefly left the Army before being recalled in 2005 to serve as part of a security force at Camp Buehring, a staging base in Kuwait for soldiers headed north into Iraq. Smith accompanied convoys into that country. Jeffers, meanwhile, had made the Army his career; a natural leader, he had risen quickly to the rank of sergeant first class. He ended up at the same base in Kuwait, before heading into Iraq. On the last night of Smith’s tour, he happened to go to the gym, where he looked up and spotted Jeffers. The two men pledged to do a better job of staying in touch before parting ways again.
Both Smith and Jeffers served two tours in the Middle East, but Smith says his friend had a tougher time by far. Jeffers served his second tour in Baghdad on Haifa Street, the contentious two-mile line between the Sunni and Shiite populations in the city. The U.S. Army and the Iraqi National Guard patrolled the median, constantly trying to maintain order in an area that had become known as “Grenade Alley.” “I loved what I did,” Jeffers says. “I loved being in the Army and I was good at it.”
But the experience left him scarred. While on patrol he encountered car bombs, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket-propelled grenade attacks and firefights with insurgents. Shrapnel scarred more than half his body and numerous concussions led to an eventual diagnosis of traumatic brain injury (TBI). His cognitive functions were becoming clouded. Jeffers says he realized he needed help after he got back stateside and began forgetting how to do simple, everyday tasks like reading or making coffee. He says he’d forget to put coffee grounds in the machine one day and then fail to put water in the reservoir the next — he broke three coffee makers. After being diagnosed with TBI, he was faced with a decision: either stay in the Army and likely be relegated to a desk job, or leave it for an uncertain future. Rated at 100 percent disability, Jeffers reluctantly chose to leave the Army he loved.
He sought out his old buddy Smith, who was working in construction, and they reconnected. He told Smith he couldn’t just sit around and collect his disability check. Over in Iraq, Jeffers had done more than fight battles; he had built up communities and provided basic services to people who needed them. “‘I have to have a purpose,’ he said,” Smith recalls. The two friends came up with an idea to start a green home-renovation business in Dallas, but bad luck struck again as the recession hit and the housing market slowed.
Smith was also dealing with his own health issues. He had developed a rainbow of debilitating food allergies, including lactose intolerance, while in the Army, and he was trying to mitigate the symptoms through lifestyle changes — namely by eating a totally organic diet. Smith plowed the yard around his Oak Cliff, Texas, home, and he and his family began growing their own food.
Inspired by his friend, Jeffers decided to tear up his own yard and go organic, too. It turned out that gardening was just the kind of work he needed. “I fell in love with it immediately,” Jeffers says. “It was peaceful, quiet and I was working on my own.” Reading was recommended as therapy for his TBI, and he found himself voraciously reading organic gardening books.
The two men also began holding regular evening get-togethers with their neighbors, which they called “firepit nights,” Smith says. Oak Cliff is an eclectic neighborhood near downtown Dallas, a mix of pre-World War II homes and mid-century moderns, and a mix of residents that include lawyers and chefs, carpenters, brewmasters and artists. Gathered around the fire, the guys would hold “cool brainstorming sessions,” Smith says, “where the energy of the fire and maybe the beer” fed dreams and plans.
It was around the firepit that Smith and Jeffers came up with an enduring plan. They wanted to share their enthusiasm for gardening and their passion for fresh, locally produced food with a wider audience. So they decided to try to scale up their home growing efforts and launch a real urban farm. They used every square inch of their own land for planting, and supplemented it with community gardens around town, friends’ yards and rooftop planters — all told, about an acre of harvestable land, growing Swiss chard, tomatoes and kale. Smith and Jeffers went through a training program with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, a national program that helps veterans launch new careers in agriculture. They toured small-scale farms run by vets in other parts of the country to learn what works and what doesn’t.
Smith and Jeffers’ vegetable beds thrived. They sold their freshly harvested crops to local groceries and restaurants. They wanted their operation to have as small an environmental footprint as possible, so they strove to make it a closed-loop system, selling their produce to restaurants, then in turn taking the restaurants’ biodegradable waste to use as compost and fuel oil. They called their new venture Eat the Yard.
Eat the Yard is still a small operation, and its long-term profitability remains a question mark, but its founders have big dreams. The food movement is just taking hold in Dallas, and Smith and Jeffers are planning to ride the wave. A local developer, Brian Bergersen, and his partners have undertaken a $65 million renovation of the cityʼs derelict Farmers Market. Taking inspiration from Seattleʼs iconic Pike Place Market, they plan to turn the Dallas location into a food and community center complete with market stands, residential housing, a beer garden and restaurants. Smith and Jeffers have met with Bergersen and have plans to include a two-acre urban farm as part of the project. They say the farm will not only produce vegetables, but will also serve as a “learning farm” for Dallas schoolchildren, many of whom live in the low-income neighborhoods nearby. “If itʼs not on a cheeseburger from McDonaldʼs, they donʼt know what it is,” Smith says, but the Eat the Yard farm will teach kids how to grow fresh food and what it tastes like.
They also want the farm to serve as a resource for other veterans who are struggling to make the transition back into civilian life. Smith says he wants them to learn what gardening can do for them — what he calls “dirt therapy.” The idea is to bring other vets on the farm and teach them the ropes, which will eventually allow them to build their own farms — along with other veteran outreach networks — in their own communities.
“The Army has a culture of passing on knowledge,” Jeffers says. “A tradition that before you leave you should bestow what you know on the next generation. Itʼs the same thing with farming.” Passing on their knowledge is a way to serve their community, and creating a learning farm, Smiths adds, “is a way to share the gospel with everybody.”
Smith still works full time in construction, but Jeffers spends his days on the farm. “The biggest thing for me is that itʼs meaningful work. I needed that,” he says. “I am very passionate about this and without this I would be a lot worse off.” He has persistent memory problems and occasional vertigo. But being out in the garden, where there is always something to do, no matter the season, has been the catalyst that helped heal his friend, Smith says. “It has done wonders for me,” Jeffers says. “For veterans, no one needs to stamp them ʻBroken. Needs Fixing.ʼ They need something to do. They need to continue their service.”

An Oasis in One of America’s Largest Food Deserts: the Local Quick Mart

The Quick Mart on Williamsburg Road in Richmond, Va., is your typical corner store. It does a brisk business in cigarettes and newspapers, along with convenience foods, like Cheez-Its and potato chips. It’s located in the city’s Greater Fulton neighborhood, which means its customers are mostly low income. There is one thing that sets the Quick Mart apart from other shops, though: It’s the only place within a nearly two-mile radius where customers can buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since May 2013, the Quick Mart has been stocking a portable refrigerator with tomatoes, sweet potatoes, lettuces and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Every week it receives a delivery from Tricycle Gardens, a local nonprofit whose mission is to grow healthy foods and get them on people’s plates in low-income Richmond neighborhoods. On a busy Monday afternoon last October, the Quick Mart fridge was empty, save for a couple of handfuls of okra and some collard greens.
“Everything’s selling,” says store owner Ayad Nasher, 26. “Whatever I got there in the cooler, they want it. I’ve been explaining to people that we have fresh vegetables now because we didn’t have it before, and they love it.”
MORE: Hungry? This Community Planted an Entire Forest of Free Food
There are some 18.3 million Americans currently living in food deserts — low-income areas with limited access to a supermarket or other source of fresh food — which are more than a mile from a grocery store in urban areas, or more than 10 miles in rural communities, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. People who live in these areas are more likely to eat poor diets and to be at higher risk of becoming obese and developing chronic obesity-related diseases. Richmond is one of the most densely populated food deserts in the nation; many of its residents can’t afford a car or the bus fare necessary to reach a grocery store.
The problem with the food-desert epidemic is that there’s no clear solution — or at least not one that’s been adequately shown to work. Public health experts have been very good about accurately mapping the precise location of the country’s thousands of food deserts, but they haven’t been as successful in getting to the next step: identifying ways to shrink them. One obvious answer may be simply to build more grocery stores. In fact, in January, the House finally passed the farm bill, which included a provision for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative that will provide $125 million to fund the construction of healthy food retailers in underserved neighborhoods.
Improving food access helps. But recent research suggests that while building new grocery stores can increase people’s perceptions of healthy food availability in their community, it might not be enough to actually change their shopping behaviors. There are lots of reasons people shop and eat the way the way they do. It goes beyond mere access: They like buying their food from the same neighborhood store owner they’ve known for decades; and they like cooking and eating with their families and preserving their culinary traditions. They don’t particularly like it when outsiders drop in to wag their fingers and tell them to eat their fruits and vegetables.
ALSO: Want to Teach Kids About Food? Make Them Grow Their Own
That may help to explain Tricycle Gardens’ success. Rather than building an invasive, new superstore, the nonprofit is wisely using the resources Richmond already has. Tricycle Gardens’ Get Fresh East End! initiative gets affordable, organic and delicious foods to low-income communities through existing channels — the Quick Mart and, about 2 miles northwest, the Clay Street Market. All the produce comes from Tricycle Gardens’ half-acre, high-yield urban farm in the nearby Manchester neighborhood. Opened in 2010, it produces 20,000 pounds of food a year. “There’s incredible flavor in locally grown food that hasn’t been trucked across countries or states,” says Tricycle Gardens’ executive director, Sally Schwitters. “One thing you can’t outsource is locally grown food.”
Tricycle’s program coordinator Claire Sadeghzadeh interacts directly with the corner store owners and personally delivers their produce twice weekly. On average, she drops off anywhere from $4 to $12 worth of fruits and vegetables per delivery at each store and constantly monitors which items are selling and which aren’t. She says Get Fresh East End! — which is supported in part by Virginia Community Capital, another nonprofit working to increase food access — plans to expand to eight additional stores by the end of 2014. “I think it helps dispel that myth that low-income families don’t eat healthy or that they don’t want healthy food,” Sadeghzadeh says. “And we know that they do. I think it’s superpowerful to see that all of our produce is pretty much sold out every week.”
Quick Mart’s Nasher, who has started cooking for himself using the produce at his store, says “it would be great” to see more shops in the area carrying fresh, locally grown food from the nonprofit. “I’m here to help the community,” says Nasher, who moved to the United States from Yemen in 2003. “To get fresh fruits and vegetables has been amazing.”
At the same time that it’s increasing healthy food access, Tricycle Gardens is also working hard to reconnect local growers with their buyers. People become more mindful of what they eat when they know where their food is coming from — even more so when they’re taught how to cook it properly. Tricycle Gardens offers various classes for community members, so they can learn how to prepare their produce — everything from bell peppers, onions and cucumbers to squash and eggplant — once it’s obtained. “The distribution is critical, but complementing that with education and outreach events — to show that preparing this great food can be easy and affordable, great fun and incredibly delicious — is where we know the changes that we hope to see can happen,” Schwitters says.
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One especially rewarding moment sticks out in her mind. Tricycle Gardens set up a stand at the Greater Fulton Community Health Fair last May, and offered local residents a fresh salad from the farm. A mother and son approached the stand; Schwitters handed the child a bowl. The salad was full of food that kids love to hate: raw kale and collard greens, topped with broccoli and carrots.
“Oh, he’s not going to eat that,” the mother said.
“Well, let me just hand it to him and if he doesn’t eat it, that’s fine. We’ll compost it and it’ll go back into our garden,” Schwitters said.
Schwitters says she turned away for a brief conversation with the boy’s mom, and when she turned back, the salad was gone. He wanted seconds. “We see this time and time again,” says Schwitters, whose grandfather was a farmer. “It’s very different eating freshly grown broccoli that has a crunch and a sweetness and a beauty to it, as opposed to that mush that comes out of a frozen bag.”
Tricycle Gardens, which has a full-time staff of just four and draws on a network of nearly 500 volunteers and interns, runs a year-round weekly farm stand and helps maintain five community gardens and three learning gardens, which provide ample opportunities for children at schools and community centers to connect with the food they eat. With its partners, the Bon Secours Richmond Health System and the Children’s Museum of Richmond, the nonprofit also runs two healing gardens, spaces for reflection and solitude. The food from the healing gardens further helps feed employees of the health system and museum.
“We want to share the magic of looking at a tiny seed and wondering how, with a little love and sunshine and a home in some beautifully composted soil, this could become something that ends up feeding you,” Schwitters says. “That connection lasts a lifetime.”
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How to Teach Kids about Food Beyond the Grocery Store

Most kids in American schools think that food just comes from the grocery store. So a new curriculum for first and second graders gives teachers and students an opportunity to talk about the more complex reality. Jones Valley Teaching Farm, an urban farm in Birmingham, Alabama, uses the curriculum on-site and in schools, teaching students about everything from planting seeds to marketing produce. The farm also partners with Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi to tell the stories of people working in the food industry across the south. A version of the kit for older students is now in the works to make the curriculum available to more schools.