Friday, July 15, 2011

Gardening the Community an oasis in Springfield's Six Corners

The Hancock Street garden

Gardening the Community youths deliver their produce to market by bicycle

Childhood obesity and diabetes disproportionately affect people of color, poor people, and people who live in what are called “food deserts”: places where corner stores may abound, but few, if any, retailers sell fresh groceries.

Embarking on its fourth season, the Mason Square Farmer’s Market is an oasis in the Springfield food desert, serving the Six Corners neighborhood from an array of local producers of fresh fruits and vegetables and other farm-fresh foods. Held in the Baystate Mason Square Health Center parking lot, this seasonal, open-air farmer’s market is open to the public on Saturdays, from 10AM to 2PM from July through October. One of the vendors is Gardening the Community.

On Wednesday, I joined a tour of the Hancock Street garden led by Ibrahim Ali, Youth Director of Gardening the Community. While more than a dozen young gardeners worked near us in small groups, representatives of a local community task force learned about their work. One person on the tour who introduced herself to me gave me a briefing on how funding trickles down to support projects like this one. Deborah Albury has a daughter who worked for GtC, but this visit was in her role as Project Director of The Healthy Communities Collaborative. Albury explained one source of funding for projects like Gardening the Community that originates with state mandates for hospitals to invest in community health. State funding from the departments of Public Health and Nutrition is channeled through area hospitals under mandate, including Baystate, to organizations like the Mason Square Health Task Force, which distributes minigrants to small, local projects that foster the health of communities like Six Corners in Springfield.

Another way government dollars are channeled into growing gardens in urban deserts, is through food stamp (EBT/SNAP) benefits and the WIC program. Farmer’s markets all over Massachusetts accept these benefits, allowing the residents of the Six Corners neighborhood to go to the Mason Square Farmer’s Market and use cash, EBT/SNAP, or WIC benefits to buy fresh vegetables that were grown by the young people of their community, in nearby garden plots that nourish and beautify the area.

The most important growing that occurs in Gardening the Community, is what happens in the hands, hearts, and minds of the young people who work in these gardens. From volunteers as young as nine, to young adults in college, GtC grows experienced gardeners. The young people may earn a daily stipend or hourly wage for their labor, but more importantly, they learn valuable skills, an appreciation for what goes into producing food, and enthusiasm for the foods themselves. I heard one young man speaking of some herbs he had planted, that might have been threatened by invading neighborhood dogs: “My cilantro?” he said, putting the emphasis on the possessive. “That I grew?” He was invested.

By putting the young people in charge, from selecting which seeds to order, to selling the produce in the farmer’s market, Ali and GtC are growing future leaders. One young man I spoke to was emphatic and clear about the leadership skills that were fostered in the garden, telling me that they have given him practical experience and confidence in his ability to lead, wherever he is. This is a measure of wellness, for which everyone involved in Gardening the Community can be proud.

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