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Community gardens are filling needs that go beyond food

Jun 17, 2018

Credit Bob Boyd

During the Great Recession of 2008, some residents of the South Wedge neighborhood became unemployed. When neighborhood members were trying to figure out what to do with a vacant lot on Hamilton Street, they decided to start a community garden, in part to alleviate financial stress by offering access to cheaper food. Ten years later, the South Wedge Victory Garden is still in use.

Various volunteer groups participated in building structures for the garden, including the beds, fencing, and recycling bins. Standing boxes were purchased for elderly people who were unable to get on their knees to garden. Those who used the garden did not have to pay for their bed, they just needed to take responsibility for it. It had about 30 beds, and each one produced about $300 worth of food.

Credit Bob Boyd

For Bob Boyd, who started the garden on Hamilton Street, the goals of the project were multifaceted: make use of a vacant lot that was an eyesore, provide an opportunity for people to have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, let people produce it themselves, have people learn how things grow, allow residents to interact with others in their community, and to offer volunteer opportunities.

“It serves as a point for bringing people together to achieve something from a community perspective, take pride in your work, and for some socioeconomic groups this is really building pride and confidence that they can do something,” said Boyd.

Community gardens have emerged in other parts of Rochester as a way to build stronger ties among communities in addition to providing fresh fruits and vegetables to those who lack access to them otherwise.

In 2012, a group of Burmese refugee families wanted to grow their own food, but with many of them living in rental properties, they did not have access to a space to do so. The families received social services from Mary’s Place, and approached staff members of Mary’s Place with their need. Mary’s Place is a member agency of Foodlink, the region’s largest food bank. Foodlink helped Mary’s Place establish a community garden on a plot of city-owned land on Lexington Avenue for the families. Some of the food grown there also goes toward Foodlink’s curbside market and kitchen.

“With Lexington, for example, we have a space where we can provide a community that is committed to growing their own food and skilled at it, but just lacked the physical space to do that,” said Foodlink’s urban farming specialist Nathaniel Mich. “We’re able to provide the physical space so that they can use their skills and their knowledge to improve their lives.”

Mich offers consulting and technical assistance to organizations that approach Foodlink with questions on how to start their own community garden.

“They [community gardens] are an important part of the food landscape here,” Mich said. “Those 100 to 120 gardens serve thousands of people in the city of Rochester.”

According to Act Rochester, the percentage of people living in poverty in Rochester between 2012 and 2016 was 33 percent. This percentage is roughly double the poverty rates for Monroe County, New York state, and the United States.

“Urban agriculture is part of a solution to that,” said Mich. “It doesn’t have to be hard or expensive to grow your own food.”

Boyd cites the lack of supermarkets within the city, lack of transportation, and lack of awareness as contributing factors to food insecurity in Rochester.

“There’s a lot of people who may be hungry, who may not have food, but they don’t know that there are programs to get them food,” Boyd said.

Credit Bob Boyd

Foodlink also provided funding for the garden behind St. Peter’s Kitchen on Brown St. in 2015. As treasurer of St. Peter’s Kitchen, Boyd once again participated in starting a community garden, but this time in a different part of the city and with a different approach. It initially operated with people taking care of their own beds but it changed to where volunteers took care of the whole garden for the community.

This garden has 10 beds, and the food grown is used for meals that the kitchen served..

“People who had a lot of issues found that working in the garden was very therapeutic, they were able to talk about their history, their story,” said Boyd.

Six years ago Foodlink approached St. Mark’s and St. John’s Episcopal Church on Culver Road. They provided a “starter kit,” with raised beds, composted soil, mulch, and tools. The church took over vacant lots and today there are seven E.D.E.N. (Every Day Eating Naturally) gardens throughout the southeast quadrant.

Most of the harvested crops are donated to food pantries, and each year church leaders raise their goal to grow more pounds. This year, St. Mark’s and St. John’s will host 10 interns from the Rochester Youth Climate Leaders to work in the garden and learn basic work skills.

“The other thing that we’re doing that we work really hard at is not just the food piece, but building community,” said Rev. Cindy Rasmussen of St. Mark’s and St. John’s. “We’re hoping for them to be a safe place where people can come and hang out with their neighbors in a way they may not have been able to do.”

This story by Brian Boye is part of a journalism collaboration between WXXI and St. John Fisher College, giving aspiring student journalists the opportunity to report on and create stories for WXXI listeners, viewers, and readers.