Opinion: An Oasis in an Urban Food Desert

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, September 8th, 2015, by Marty Nathan

I had the pleasure recently to be invited to the garden office of the Springfield nonprofit Gardening The Community. I joined a group of a dozen teens and their adult leaders Ibrahim Ali, Moises Ramos, Dondre Scott, Olivia and Danielle Brown and Gabriella della Croce at a break in the shade on a sweltering August day.

The young people ranged in age from 12 to 18. Some had just joined the group and others had been part of the summer GTC team for four years or more as it has transformed abandoned city lots into organic plots producing tomatoes, squash, greens, peppers and much more for sale at reasonable rates to the local low-income Mason Square community and others throughout the City.

The young people themselves are products of the same neighborhoods the organization serves. They are paid a stipend based on their grade in school. They dig the soil, plant seeds and seedlings mulch heavily since they have no access to running water, pick and distribute their produce by bicycle to those who have bought (at sliding-scale rates) farm shares in GTC Eats! They manage a farm stand at the site, sell at the weekly Mason Square farmers market and distribute their food to other neighborhoods via the Mobile Farmers Market. The organization has burgeoned since its birth 13 years ago.

At its inception, it employed five summer youth members. Today, 30 young people gather at the plots each year. The “repeaters” are impressive — young men and women speaking with confidence and honesty about the importance of healthy foods for their families and neighbors and about their own dreams of starting small businesses and studying science, dreams provoked and nourished by their work.

They showed me their garden on Hancock Street, one of four they had redeemed from urban blight. The previously vacant lot is now leased from the adjacent machine shop. Co-director Ibrahim told me that they use low-till methods, compost their waste and utilize some aspects of permaculture on all their sites. When asked what compels him, he expressed passion for the young people, the neighborhood and the food. He has cultivated his organization at the nexus of the three.
I had visited them with my own agenda. August marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, our country’s first and most vivid example of climate injustice, wherein the poor, the least responsible for dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change. More than 1,800 people died, over a million were displaced, way too many of them poor and black. People of color have been much less able to return since the disaster.

That devastation, probably more than any other event in this country, nurtured its opposing concept, climate justice. Most of those who struggle now against the burning of fossil fuels recognize the need and the opportunity to, in the same process, reverse the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few at the expense of the impoverishment of the many.

Poor people in the path of potential hurricanes and inner city kids in Springfield must constitute the prime beneficiaries from the transformation to a non-fossil-fuel-based economy.

The mitigation of climate change must mean better and safer housing and neighborhoods, healthier air and food, jobs at a living wage and empowerment of the disempowered.

I came to Hancock Street to see firsthand the implementation of that concept: local organic food produced and distributed with the lowest possible carbon footprint, providing nutrition and jobs to those in impoverished food deserts.

But when I asked the interns what they thought they were contributing to the struggle against climate change, they were relatively dismissive. They knew about and opposed climate change, but had little appreciation of the impact of their work. They came to Gardening The Community because they liked it, were learning from it and were working and spending time with their friends.

I think now that this is the way it should be. To change the world means to provide people with options that make sense, not just causes to pursue. Gardening The Community, as one front of climate justice for the city of Springfield, makes sense.

Marty Nathan, M.D., is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.