Community Gardens and Food Justice

Tanya AtwoodAdams began our program on gardening by reading the Portuguese fable, “Stone Soup.” A wise woman, after first placing a stone in the bottom of an empty pot, persuaded villagers to add some of their meager food supplies to the pot and in doing so to create a sumptuous soup that nourished everyone. By working together, a delicious meal was created. Likewise, the women of WTB work together, with each woman contributing what she can, and achieve results that benefit the entire community.

Tanya explained that our first speaker would be sharing information about WTB’s collaborative organic garden created on Syracuse’s North Side for refugees and other neighborhood residents. The next speaker would be presenting information about Slow Food, an organization founded to counteract fast food and fast life and to honor local food traditions. Our final speaker would be representing Syracuse Grows, a group dedicated to fair food distribution and urban gardening in Syracuse.

Tanya introduced Daryl Files, our first speaker. Born in Chicago, Daryl has lived in Syracuse for 36 years. She formerly owned and operated a sports bar with her husband, Noel, and has been a personal development trainer. She has been very involved with many local nonprofits, including the Autism Research Institute. Daryl is Jewish, the mother of four daughters, and a grandmother three times over.

Daryl has been very active in developing and continuing our Tapestry Garden on Syracuse’s North Side. Daryl explained that the garden arose from a suggestion made at a WTB meeting two years ago. Because WTB women had been volunteering at the Center for New Americans, Daryl wanted the garden to benefit these refugees, most of whom were living on the North Side. As several women brainstormed the idea, the name of Dominic Robinson came up. They had read in the Post-Standard that Dominic was involved with the Franciscan Northside Collaboratory and with the great things going on in the Prospect Hill area around St. Joseph’s Hospital. They contacted Dominic, who then joined with WTB in putting together a garden committee that included many North Side leaders. He also made it possible for WTB to locate our garden on Isabella Street by researching available city plots. 

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WTB received many donations of money, services, volunteer hours, and materials. Then Beth Killian, who had become a prime mover of the garden, went to a Syracuse Grows meeting. There she was introduced to Jonnell Allen, the Syracuse geographer who eventually spoke at one of our WTB meetings and helped with the garden. One connection led to another, and soon the garden committee met with a professor and his students from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), another connection facilitated through Syracuse Grows. The students gave WTB some totally new ideas and provided a design for the garden. Then Cornell Cooperative Extension became involved.  All these different links came together to create a perfect storm of experience, abilities and volunteerism. Thus the garden was named the Tapestry Garden to reflect the variety of people who created it and benefit from it. Daryl thought it would be a little garden, but it is magnificent. WTB members are working with local groups that we had never heard of before, and like the “Stone Soup” story, this coming together has produced unexpected and wonderful results. 

The garden has benefited the community beyond our expectations. One refugee woman reported to Daryl that, from her garden plot, she was able to provide tomatoes to 20 families. Two local teens sat in the garden each day to eat their lunches and formed friendships with others who came to work or were just curious. So it is like the soup: you mix great ingredients, and magic happens! WTB wanted to help the refugee community on the North Side, and links kept coming together with ideas and cooperation. 

Our next speaker was Dawn Wilson, who moved to Syracuse from Seattle in 2007. She received her master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston in 2002 and has spent her career working for places most people do not even realize have libraries, such as newspapers and financial corporations. In her spare time, Dawn loves to cook and eat, and she jumped at the opportunity to be on the board of Slow Food CNY. Because she believes that delicious, healthy food should be affordable and accessible to everyone, she is thrilled to be helping Slow Food grow and develop in Central New York.

Dawn gave us some history. The international Slow Food organization was begun in Italy in 1986 by a gentleman who was fighting against the arrival of MacDonald’s in his small town. He was concerned that the availability of fast food would end their local food traditions. The organization he created spread, and Slow Food USA was founded in 1989. Dawn attended a potluck dinner organized by Syracuse Grows in October 2008 when someone proposed starting a Syracuse chapter of Slow Food. There was interest, and by early 2009 the local chapter was chartered.

The Slow Food organization has three goals. The first is to encourage diners to slow down and become aware of the food they consume, taking the time to cook and giving attention to the flavor, variety, preparation, and source of what we eat. The second goal is to support local food producers and to reduce the environmental and nutritional impact of transporting food for thousands of miles. Food production should not harm the environment or animals or our own health, and farmers should receive fair wages and profits from their labor. The third goal is to remember and preserve local food traditions. Dawn mentioned that she had just heard of grape pie, a specialty of the Finger Lakes area that she is eager to try. She feels that local food traditions are important and should be encouraged. 

Dawn explained that society and advertisers feed us the idea that cooking is too much work and that we are too busy to do it ourselves. Slow Food is trying to show that there are options, such as making soups, freezing, and canning. Small adjustments in our lives can produce big nutritional and flavorful payoffs. Fast food and prepared food are not the only options.

Slow Food CNY has sponsored three potluck dinners at Westcott Community Center.  The dinners have been so successful and well-attended that the group is looking for a larger venue. The purpose of the dinners is to share food and build a sense of community around food. At each potluck dinner, Slow Food CNY awards a Snail of Approval, designed to support businesses and programs that support fair food practices. The recipients thus far have been the Syracuse Real Food Co-operative, Empire Brewing (which uses only locally grown hops in its beer), and the Central New York Regional Market.

Slow Food CNY supports Slow Food USA (SFUSA). The chapter was one of 300 nationwide that participated in the Time for Lunch Campaign—an “eat-in” (much like a “sit-in”)—on Labor Day.  The purpose of the eat-in was to draw attention to the Child Nutrition Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress. This act governs the school lunch programs. At the time the act was written in the  1960s, the primary concerns were tooth decay and nutrition,  not obesity. The act prohibited sugary foods, like jelly beans and popsicles, but not Snickers or potato chips. Today’s primary child-health concern is obesity, and foods that met the 1960s federal guidelines (such as chicken nuggets, Tater Tots, and canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup) are factors now contributing to many children’s weight issues. (Go to www.SlowFoodUSA.org for more information and related articles.)

Slow Food is concerned that many of today’s school cafeterias no longer cook meals themselves. Rather, they reheat, fry, or steam processed foods, creating meals that are high in fats and preservatives and low in nutrition. They rely on chips, pizza, and burritos, which are high in sugar, trans fats, and calories. One quarter of children ages 5 to 10 show early warning signs of heart disease. Type 2 diabetes can no longer be called “adult-onset diabetes” because of the rising rates of this disease in children. During the past two decades, obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled in teens.  At the eat-in, children drew pictures of their ideal lunches; the pictures were sent to our local congressman, Dan Maffei.

Slow Food is currently working to promote the Slow Food CNY chapter in the media. The Post-Standard published an article about the organization, and Channel 6 covered a recent potluck dinner. The group had a booth at the recent 40 Below event at the MOST (Museum of Science and Technology). (Go to www.SlowFoodCNY.org for more information.  The website keeps the local community up to date on food issues and provides links to local farmers, a Flickr photo page, and a Facebook fan page.)

Slow Food CNY’s goals for 2010 are to hold three potluck dinners; organize a trip to a local farm; hold one or more cooking classes, where grandmothers will teach their food traditions; and host a movie night. The first movie, Two Angry Moms, has been scheduled on the last Friday in February; it is about two women who went into their children’s school to change the food served there. Additional plans include holding two fundraisers at Empire Brewing, the first on May 2. The group is also planning a wine-, beer- and food-tasting event with chefs from area restaurants; this is in the planning stages, so it could change.  Slow Food is trying to think of membership incentives and is considering the creation of a Slow Food “passport” for Syracuse that would give discounts at partnering businesses. The group is also looking for more membership feedback and is advocating for food justice and equal access to quality food. Dawn suggested that WTB, with our connections on the North Side, might be able to help Slow Food identify the needs in the community, and she asked for our suggestions.

In answering questions about food justice, Dawn mentioned federal subsidies for corn that is used to produce corn syrup, making junk food so cheap. The Farm Bill will be up for reauthorization in two years, and Slow Food USA will be promoting subsidies for more nutritious foods.  The group would like to address basic costs (so that an apple is not more expensive than a package of Oreos); these include health costs, which need to be considered.  Dawn said grocers tell her that at the beginning of any month, food stamps are used on produce, but that by the end of the month, when money is running out, produce is too expensive, and food stamps are used for cheaper, high-calorie, processed foods. Thus, helping people grow some of their own food and preserve it for winter use should be a high priority. Although Slow Food does not take a stand on vegetarianism, the group does advocate eating locally farmed meat raised in a humane way, as opposed to factory-farmed meat. 

In response to another question, Dawn discussed community supported agriculture (CSA), which allows individuals and families to buy a share in a farm. For an upfront payment early in the growing season, the consumer gets a weekly share of the produce as it becomes available. CSA is very affordable if you can pay the upfront cost. CSACNY is having a fundraiser to help defray the upfront cost for families of limited means. (See www.CSACNY.org for information about participating farms.)

The Food Bank of Central New York sometimes gets calls from farmers offering unharvested produce. Since the Food Bank does not have many volunteers, Slow Food would like to organize itself to be on call to pick whatever produce the farmers are offering the Food Bank.

Our next speaker was Mable Wilson (no relation to Dawn). Mable moved to Syracuse in the late 1990s with her daughter and son. After a battle with drugs and alcohol, Mable’s life became centered around community work. She took in kids and gained the name “Ma Belle.” She became involved in community gardening and co-founded the West Newell Street community garden. She is a member of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), which is currently working to get a grocery store on the South Side. Mable is a founder and active member of Syracuse Grows. She loves bringing people together and is working to bring Anan Lololi, founder and executive director of the Afri-Can Food Basket, to the Syracuse area to share his experience and give advice. Anan works with African immigrants in Toronto, keeping alive the traditions and foods of their own countries. Mable is also an active member of Plymouth Congregational Church, where she is a deacon.

Mable has had connections with gardens throughout her life. She grew up in a foster home with two women who had victory gardens during World War II. The women continued to garden after the war, and Mabel remembers their garden as a piece of land where the children had to do chores. Later, she always had a garden or volunteered to help in the gardens of others. She sold fruits and vegetables from a truck. In Seattle she had a community garden and continued selling produce from a truck. When she came to Syracuse ten years ago, she found vacant land and gathered people together to start her garden.

Referring to the connections that people make through Syracuse’s many organizations, Mable told us that Jonnell and Dominic first met at her garden and are now married. Mable spoke lovingly about the West Newell Street garden. It is a community center where people of all ages meet. The youngest was Mable’s grandchild. At eight months old he observed from a wheelbarrow; he is now 14 and loves to find salamanders, toads and snakes in the garden. Since part of gardening is to preserve the environment, he returns all the wildlife that he finds to their garden homes. There are currently 13 families, with 16 children, working in the garden. Mable sees it as a beautiful mixture of people working together. The city provided a water spigot for the garden by tapping into a water main that had served the razed house on the property. WTB members perked up at this information, because the Tapestry Garden relies on water barrels that are refilled weekly.

Syracuse Grows will present a workshop with Canopy (a coalition of Syracuse parks associations, community garden groups, and greenspace advocates) in February. Speakers will discuss gardening—from composting to garden planting— and talk about the vegetables that grow well in Syracuse. (For more information, go to www.SyracuseGrows.org.)

Throughout Syracuse, more than 20 community gardens are located on abandoned property that has been taken over by the city. Thus, these gardens can be taken away at any time if the city develops plans for the property. It was suggested that someone encourage the City Council to pass an ordinance to maintain open spaces for gardens. Mable thought that this was a good idea and said that she would take it up with Syracuse Grows. The gardens beautify neighborhoods and provide nutrition.

The various community gardens in Syracuse are organized differently. WTB’s Tapestry Garden is organized on a plot system, with each family responsible for its own plot—deciding what to grow, planting, watering, harvesting. 

At the other end of the spectrum, all volunteers at Mable’s garden take responsibility for the whole garden. Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings are scheduled work times, but volunteers can come and go at whatever times are convenient. There is a list of what needs to be done. At harvest time, the produce is divided among the workers on a sweat-equity basis. Unfortunately, not enough people in the neighborhood of the garden want to work on it, so Mable has reached out to other groups, including schools and churches. Mable is working with Tomorrow’s Neighborhoods Today (TNT) to partner with neighborhood schools to either work on the existing gardens or establish gardens at the schools. In addition, the superintendent of the Syracuse City School District suggested that Mable get in touch with the science coordinator to discuss developing curricula to teach math and science concepts through gardening. And this year the Somali Bantu organization will start working in the gardens. Mable will be networking with Mary Nelson to get her youth center involved. Girls Inc., from the YWCA, will be working on the Highland Park garden. Working in a community is spreading throughout our city!

SUNY-ESF has tested the soil in all of the gardens for lead and industrial pollutants. Like much of the soil in the Syracuse area, the soil in the gardens contains lead, primarily from leaded gas and lead paint that washed off houses and streets and into the water systems. The levels of these chemicals have not been excessive at Mable’s garden. Mable learned that spinach will absorb lead from soil, but she did plant it in some areas of the garden. When harvested, this spinach was not eaten, could not be composted, and had to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Through Syracuse Grows, garden participants have held a canning day and a pickling day to learn to preserve their produce. They also held a potluck harvest feast at Assumption Church to share the glory of the food they had grown.

The theme of today’s WTB meeting was that by working together we can accomplish more than we could possibly have imagined. We learned of past cooperation, and we had several “Aha!” moments when listeners recognized new possibilities for the future.

When we had arrived at the meeting, each woman had been given a vegetable label to wear. (I was a cabbage.) We were asked during a break to meet with “our own kind” and then, after the break, to “plant” ourselves together. We had also been given an information sheet about companion planting—a list of plants that flourish when grown together. 

In our closing, Tanya asked us to join together in a circle. She reminded us that certain plants benefit when they grow close together—and so too do the women of WTB.

Saro Kumar read the poem, “Let Us Give Thanks.” Finally we were asked to “twine our tendrils” and join together in singing “Vine and Fig Tree,” as adapted by Renee-Noelle Felice.