As a part of Community Studio, I had the pleasure of working on the Alexander Street Blooming Boulevard, a community garden in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, renowned for being Canada’s poorest postal code. The project builds on a movement to provide green space and opportunities for maintenance in the socially and economically challenged neighborhood. As an extension of the work, I co-authored “Garden is a Seed: Community Gardening in Disadvantaged Neighborhoods” with Lara Davis, detailing the benefits and obstacles of urban agriculture in similar scenarios. The case studies demonstrated that a range of physical challenges, from contamination to parking lots, can be dealt with. In all cases, gardening brought about an increased sense of community, social connections, and improved health from the maintenance and food production. In my mind, the most significant impact is how the act of communal food production bridges cultural gaps, allowing immigrants to both maintain and share customs, ingredients, and recipes.
In Kansas, New Roots for Refugees Farm is taking the community garden a step further by providing income generating opportunities through a Farm Business Development Program. After at least one year with a community garden plot, 14 women accepted into the program receive a quarter-acre plot. In addition to providing a year’s worth of seeds, tools, water, and marketing, each farmer is also matched with two Community Supported Agriculture members to support the plot’s crop.
The hope is that after three years, the farmers can take the annual $200 of their sales they’ve been saving and start their own independent farm on a vacant lot within the neighborhood. Though it’s a long shot that they’ll be able to single-handedly support their families — most have husbands working full-time — the farms offer an invaluable monetary supplement, as well as filling the fridge and satisfying that essential human hunger for productivity and worthiness.
This is an exciting initiative that will have significant benefits to the community and local economy. By providing income in a way that works with these newcomers existing culture and skills, the NRRF facilitates a challenging transition to a new country and economy.
“Part of me felt that making the farm a nonprofit says that it isn’t viable,” [Katherine Kelly] explains. “It acts like a museum, and it’s run like a museum sometimes. Farming shouldn’t be like that.” She isn’t black and white on the issue, however: “I have to say there is a particularly Midwestern emphasis on the free market as the solution. I don’t like a lot of that — the idea that capitalism is the solution to everything. But I believe in small businesses, and I know and see how proud the owners are of their businesses.”
I can see this being applicable in Vancouver, given our enthusiasm for community gardens and diverse population.