I live in a food desert...
“The area I live in is called a food desert,” Kasim Wallace, 17, said. As he simply put it, “a food desert just loosely defined refers to a place where there’s food there but none of it are really healthy options.”
Many sections in the city of Rochester, N.Y., are identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as food deserts and many of the residents of the city live in poverty.
The USDA officially defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.”(1)
Reports from the Center for Disease Control, the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) and the National Gardening Association tout the benefits of urban gardening. The ACGA states that urban gardening improves “the quality of life for people by providing a catalyst for improved health, neighborhood, and community development; stimulating social interaction; encouraging self-reliance; beautifying neighborhoods; producing nutritious food; reducing family food budgets; conserving resources; and creating opportunities for recreation, exercise, therapy, and education.”(2)
At first glance, you might not immediately see anything growing around Rochester, N.Y., except empty lots where houses once stood and corner stores with bars on every window. This may not be surprising when considered in conjunction with the statistics provided in the 2015 Update to the Poverty Report (3) which states that the Rochester’s poverty rate is nearly 33% and that “Rochester has the highest rate of extreme poverty of any comparably sized city in the United States.”
However, imagine slowing down a bit and taking a much closer look. Just around the corner you will likely find a garden or two or more in some unlikely spot. In one of those hidden gardens you may find some wonderful people.
The city of Rochester is home to many urban gardeners whose labor helps feed their families and bring joy to their communities. This is the story of three of those people working to bring wholeness and access to nutritious and fresh food here in Rochester.
As you look around, you may find Kasim Wallace stepping out his door and taking a few steps to grab a few beans off the vine for a quick snack or to pick some leaves from one of the many varieties of mint that he has learned to grow in the garden he created with his mom, Wanda Franklin, in the tiny strip of land between the driveway and a chain link fence next to his house in the city.
Or you may find Lisa Barker kneeling among the abundant produce growing on the hill by the Gandhi Institute or behind the Greenhouse Café and showing a young person how to plant or harvest beans or potatoes or prune tomatoes. Lisa is the Director of Seedfolk City Farm (Seedfolk), a multi-site urban farm in Rochester. She teaches youth how to grow food to combat food insecurity and food deserts and enhance the community with a healthy localized community food system. She shared, “I would like for Seedfolk to be a vehicle for more kids, and people really, to have transformative and meaningful experiences around not only food but around themselves, and around their community and their own roles within their neighborhoods.”
Or you may find Chandra Acharya clearing a section of her garden to plant the next crop of vegetables, as her parents and grandparents have done before her, to feed her family and save money. Chandra is one of the approximately 2,500 people in the Nepali community that has been expanding in the city of Rochester over the last 7 to 8 years. She said that “when we grow our own food we save money; we don’t have to buy” food from the store. Only during the snowy winter months in Rochester does she have to purchase vegetables.
In Kasim Wallace’s garden, his hands and his mothers have been transformed into the “growing hands” of his grandmother, who could grow most anything. The tomatoes were so abundant this year they had to stake them to raise them up off the collard greens.
Kasim’s story in the garden began four years ago when he, a boy 13 years old, brought home a spider plant from the Grow Green garden just a few doors down from his house. “Any chance I got to I would go over and help out in the garden,” Kasim said. “I started thinking about wanting plants at my house.” But he said, “My mom said she never really had a lot of luck growing plants. So I thought maybe we could do houseplants.” “For my birthday I brought home two spider plants; one for myself and one for my mom. And I made my mom promise for my birthday that she would try to keep it alive. And it lived. We started wondering what else we could keep alive.”
He didn’t know that four years later he would be growing all kinds of wonderful edible things in a garden that he and his mom would create on the little plot of land by his house. This year he said that they “grew beans, and we decided we had to grow kale, and collard greens. I grew chives, we also planted strawberries this year. And then we have a variety of mint in the garden. And we also grew a variety of peppers. And raspberries. We have a small raspberry patch.”
Kasim, now 17, is the fourth generation of his family to live in the home that he shares with his three siblings and his single mom, Wanda Franklin. In the past, to get fresh fruits and vegetables, he and his older sister “used to sometimes walk to Abundance Co-op which is at least two miles from our house.” Now, he doesn’t think that they’ve had to buy a tomato from anyone else in three years.
“Having the garden at our own house has in many ways impacted the way that we eat. It’s definitely a little bit more convenient now being able to have access to the things in our garden. Also I think it inspires us to come up with new ways to use some of the things in our garden simply because if you grow food you’re proud of it, and if you grow food, you certainly don’t want to waste any. And my work with Seedfolk has inspired me to learn more about food and the relationship between food and communities and our bodies. And I think I’ve also been able to inspire some of my friends, too.”
Between his garden and the volunteer work he does with Seedfolk, the produce he has helped to grow has made a positive impact on how his family eats and on their budget. He said, “Having produce in the garden definitely helps. And what definitely impacts what I’m spending on food is my volunteer work at Seedfolk. I often take things home from Seedfolk. So between the two projects, which in my head are kind of one project, it’s definitely impacted what we’re spending on food and how we’re spending on food.”
Kasim shared that, “getting outside and getting into the garden is, or has been a very good thing for me. It’s good to be in the garden and work with people. It’s always fun to learn. I think it can be a bit of a distraction sometimes if things are a little bit harder in life. But I’m also learning it’s very important to not use it to distract yourself too much. I think there’s balance in between there because you don’t want to distract yourself from the matters of life. But it’s good to be able to see it sometimes as a relief.”
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Lisa's Gardens ~ Seedfolk City Farm
Lisa Barker’s story in the garden began about seven years ago when her boyfriend broke up with her the day they were to travel across the country together. She turned back to the women at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) who had offered her a position at what was then known as The Vineyard. She said she was hired to “take photographs and do some writing and produce documentation about the summer youth program that operated at that farm. I also had the chance to get my hands dirty and actually work on the farm myself and I just fell in love with it.” She went on to say that, “It was a really new experience for me and it ended up being a very powerful and a very healing experience.” This was not what she expected to be doing when she finished college with a photography degree, but said that it “is today what I love to do.”
Lisa found healing during that summer in The Vineyard as she learned how to nurture plants and children. She found joy in watching each grow and transform. In turn, she created Seedfolk City Farm, along with Josiah Krause and a small core team of volunteers.
Through the work they do with the youth who come through the Spring Apprentice Program and the Summer of Opportunity Program of planting seeds, watering, weeding and harvesting plants, they are also teaching the youth about self-reliance, pride, leadership and community. She has heard many times from those teens that they “like that they’re doing something to better their community.”
“Youth programming is pretty much the reason why we do what we do. We ‘farm to teach’. That’s our slogan and it’s true. If there were not kids here during much of the year it wouldn’t feel as meaningful. I really enjoy planning programs, planning different activities that will be engaging for kids, not only with farming but with the food system as a whole.”
“We plan our summer program so that kids are growing food at our farms and then they’re cooking at our partner sites that have kitchens. So they’re learning how to use it, how to process it, how to prepare it. The kids then go to the farmers market where they sell and distribute the produce in the community. And then they are also teaching other people about all of these things that they themselves are learning. And so we aim to give kids a well-rounded experience.”
What brings Lisa the greatest joy is “seeing the kids be transformed by participating in things that they get a chance to do through Seedfolk.” She said, “It’s great to be a part of something that lets people’s best selves come out. Or that enables these great, maybe unexpected, qualities or skills or interests and passions come through. It’s really an honor to be a part of someone’s life in that way.”
Lisa said that her goal for the future of Seedfolk is, “to get to the point where we are able to offer paid youth programming, youth internships, year round. Where we have the ability to bring on kids and give them jobs, jobs doing this work within the community food system and becoming leaders within their community through food access and urban agriculture.”
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In Chandra Acharya’s garden, her love of working in her garden results in the harvest that richly feeds her family and anyone who happens to stop by.
Chandra’s story in the garden began over 50 years ago while living in Bhutan where her life was farming, using oxen to till the land about the size of a soccer field, and subsequently in Nepal when the Bhutanese government exiled the people of Nepali descent. She said that, “in my country, my father, my mother, my brother, my daughter-in-law, my sister-in-law, my grandpa, grandma, every time, all time, working in the vegetable [garden with] pumpkins, potatoes, beans, and me, working all the time.” She did not know when she and her family made their way as refugees to Rochester that once again she would be farming, this time on a small plot of land next to the house she rents in the city with her family.
Chandra’s love for working in the garden is contagious. She enthusiastically shares her knowledge, her seeds and her produce with her family, friends and members of the Nepali community. She arrived in Rochester five years ago with her husband and three children. She could wait only one season before she had to get her hands back in the ground and start growing food once again for her family. After getting permission from her landlord, she began the hard work of preparing the soil, including clearing out all the rocks. Then the planting began and each year the garden has expanded and the harvest increased.
When asked what she would do if her landlord would not allow her to have a garden, she emphatically said that she would leave. She would find another place to live. She said that wherever she goes she gardens because she “loves it.”
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While Chandra doesn’t technically live in a food desert as defined by the USDA, the closest stores are the corner markets that have little fresh, nutritious food. Neighbors in her community often will walk three miles to the Rochester Public Market for their produce. By growing her own produce, she and her family are able “to eat fresh” and “when somebody comes to visit, she can give to them also.” She grows many different types of chili, an ingredient in many Nepali dishes, as well as potatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, tomatoes and leafy greens, such as spinach, collard greens and lambs quarters.
In addition to the large variety of vegetables, she also grows beautiful gold and purple flowers that she incorporates into her Hindu religious tradition by stringing them into garland and draping on the shrine that her husband made.
Back to the soil...
The results identified in the studies noted above are reflected in what Kasim, Lisa, and Chandra have each experienced in their lives and the lives of those that they have touched through their gardening.
They don’t do it because they read about it in a report but rather because they love it and have felt the results first hand: the healing nature of working with their hands in the soil and the ability to feed their family and friends with their produce.
Lisa said, “As much as I love the reactions I get to see in other people, I love at the end of the day, when I’m by myself and I get to just maybe weed a row of something, or just plant a row of lettuce seeds by myself, and have some time to just be alone with my thoughts, and with the work and the ground. That’s so wonderful, too. That often is kind of a nice way to bring me back to why I like doing this. It’s peaceful, it’s meditative, it’s like I said before, it’s a healing thing to do.”
Story and Photographs by Audrey Horn
3. “Benchmarking Rochester’s Poverty, A 2015 Update and Deeper Analysis of Poverty in the City of Rochester”, by Edward J. Doherty, published by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and ACT Rochester.