By Heather E. Smith, ASC intern
I’ve got a vision to start an urban farm which improves access to healthy foods in underserved communities and engages people in the meaningful, sustainable work of growing food. My future non-profit organization will be called Roots Rising. Imagine these scenarios…
Quincy is a 62 year old African American male. He grew up in rural North Carolina, the youngest of 6 siblings. When he was a boy, he liked to help his mother in the garden where she grew food for the family. After high school, Quincy decided to join the military and soon found himself fighting the war in Vietnam. Quincy returned from Vietnam a different man. He was angry and withdrawn, and began to abuse substances. He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before it had a name. When his mother passed away he moved north to look for work. Quincy had trouble holding down a job and maintaining healthy relationships. His drug dependency led him to steal and eventually he spent four years in prison for armed robbery. He was released to a half-way house, but he left on his own volition only to become homeless. Quincy had three failed marriages along the way and has six children from which he is estranged.
One cold April night, Quincy was sleeping on the street when a young man found him and took him to a new shelter that had opened up. This shelter had mental health and addictions specialists and a partnership with Roots Rising, a new urban farm in the neighborhood. One day his counselor convinced him to try a new activity, working on the Roots Rising farm. Each week, six men go to the farm and help with farming activities, growing vegetables to sell to area restaurants, supermarkets, and community members. Quincy has found the work calming and he has begun to strengthen his frail body and eat healthier foods. His work reminds him of growing up in the South helping his mother tend to her garden. Each week the six members of the “Root Psi Phi” team take a business-sized share of produce back to the shelter where another team of men prepare their meals; a local, sustainable food system. Quincy and others have found a new sense of purpose by working at the Roots Rising Farm. Previously unemployable, they now have meaningful occupation and can provide food for their family at the shelter as well as for a broader community which lacked access to affordable local, organic produce. Quincy says his experience at Roots Rising has saved his life.
Khaliyah is a 15-year-old African American girl who lives in a large Northeastern U.S. city. Born at 9 pounds 4 ounces, she has been overweight ever since. Khaliyah is one of four children living with their mother in a public housing development. Her mother works in housekeeping at a local hospital and the family receives government food assistance. Khaliyah has developed diabetes and struggles with her weight and eating habits. There is no source of fresh produce within walking distance from their home. There are seven corner stores, a liquor store, a dollar store, a McDonalds, and a KFC. Her family eats a lot of high-calorie, high-fat, processed foods with little to no nutritional value. A few months ago, Khaliyah’s 27 year-old aunt Shamika tragically passed away after complications from gastric bypass surgery. Shamika’s three children moved in with Khaliyah, her mom, and her three siblings. There are now eight family members, and their budget is stretched even further. Khaliyah is a bright student but recently her school work has suffered due to depression, grief, and social pressures about her weight.
Recently, at an annual check-up, her forward-thinking nurse practitioner decided to prescribe her the healthy weight program which partners with Roots Rising, a nearby urban farm. Khaliyah has begun to work on the farm four hours per week with other kids her age from the healthy weight program. They do everything from planting, cultivating, and harvesting, to selling at market stand and delivering weekly shares on bicycles to neighbors. Each week they have a class about healthy living, and each week she and the others take a family-sized share of produce home to their families. For Khaliyah, there is a great sense of pride and accomplishment in being able to provide food for her family. She has lost 13 pounds since joining Roots Rising and her grades are back up. Khaliyah has taken an interest in cooking. After high school, she hopes to attend the Culinary Institute and open up a healthy food restaurant in her neighborhood.
Ariel is two and a half years old. Her parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic seven years ago. Ariel was diagnosed with autism six months ago and she is underweight. She receives nutritional supplements through a feeding tube in her nose at night because she doesn’t eat enough by mouth. She walks, but does not talk. She has frequent tantrums and her parents are at their wits end. Ariel will only eat crunchy and spicy foods and that means large doses of jalapeño potato chips and crackers. She has not had much exposure to fruits and vegetables as there are few sources available in their neighborhood, and what she has tried, she has spit out. It has been a losing battle for her parents.
A few months ago, Ariel’s occupational therapist suggested the “True Leaves” program at Roots Rising, a nearby urban farm. Once a week Ariel attends with her therapist and they look at and smell flowers, dig in the dirt, carry buckets of produce from the field to the washing station, and taste new foods. Ariel has taken a liking to carrots and radish; fresh, raw, and from the earth. She is much calmer after spending time at the farm. She is able to focus for longer periods on learning activities, and she has begun to say a few words; “eat”, “mine”, and “mama”. Her parents are ecstatic! Ariel will continue to attend the “True Leaves” program at Roots Rising with other children who have special developmental needs. She is gaining weight and soon she will not need the feeding tube. Her mother is now a regular volunteer there and the family has signed up for a weekly share of produce through the ASC program. Roots Rising has changed their lives for the better.
All of the above characters are fictional although they are based on combinations of people I have met and known through my life and work. There are so many more stories, more people, and more ways that urban farming can be a positive influence on individuals, families, and communities. Roots Rising! The possibilities are endlessly exciting. Let’s Grow!