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Urban Farms Aim to Build Bridges to Low-Income Communities

The discourse about what we eat is changing across the country. More and more, people want to know where their food comes from, what’s in it and who produces it, and local farmers markets are stepping up to meet such demands.

Until recently, this discourse has largely excluded many low-income families who could barely afford rent, let alone artisanal ingredients. Many farmers markets were accessible only to those with good salaries, or at least enough disposable income to pay a premium for a bunch of emerald-hued leafy greens. And even the nascent discussion about those disparities left out a key element — the growers.

“So much emphasis has been placed on the difficulty for the consumer affording local and sustainable food. Meanwhile, the small American farmer has been marginalized by the increasing consolidation of agriculture and very limited access to markets that pay him/her fairly for their work,” said Ann Harvey Yonkers, co-executive director of FreshFarm Markets. “We are addicted to cheap food in the USA in an odd way,” she said. “We do not complain at the price of a bag of chips, even though each chip in that bag is very expensive. But people can get critical if a farmer raises the price of her potatoes at market by 15 or 20 cents per pound.”

On the outset, this would appear to be a vicious cycle with no winners. Without access to markets in which the farmer can be paid fairly, prices remain high and exclude lower-income individuals.

Enter urban markets such as FreshFarm, Common Good City Farm, and Wangari Gardens. Each operates in different ways to bridge the gap through access, education and empowerment.

FreshFarm — one of the most recognizable farmers markets in Washington, which operates markets near the White House, at Union Market, Foggy Bottom and other locations throughout Washington, Virginia and Maryland — tackles part of the access issue. Its matching dollars program provides up to $15 matches for patrons with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Women, Infants and Children; or senior benefits. That means $15 of SNAP benefits will give patrons $30 of fresh produce.

Yonkers said FreshFarm has found other opportunities to promote fresh ingredients to underserved populations.

“Each of our markets has a gleaning program, where farmers donate fresh produce to a nonprofit partner at the end of each market day. This fresh food is used to make meals for our gleaning partner’s clients, such as at Miriam’s Kitchen and Thrive DC.”

From the perspective of such urban farmers, an urban garden just exists if it’s not engaged in the community, and it’s not sustainable if it’s just existing.

“We have the opportunity and responsibility to engage people and create spaces for everyone to learn from each other,” said Anita Adalja of Common Good City Farm.

Common Good City Farm exists in a partly gentrified low-income area and has been going strong for five seasons, producing 6,000 pounds of food last season alone. Eighty-five percent of the food grown is distributed in the community through partner programs and food pantries.

One program encourages members of the community to participate in workshops to learn to grow their own food. In exchange for their time and work on the farm, Common Good distributes up to 10 pounds of food per family. That’s no small thing when the weekly food budget of many of these families is less than $100. Plus, the program makes the community part of the solution.

“We’re not just growing food, we’re growing communities; we’re healing and uniting people. We’re trying to use food as an equalizer,” Adalja said.

Age, race and background are irrelevant in this space. Instead, the conversations go to irrigation or weeding and how to prepare the latest harvest of cucumbers.

Washington is experiencing two movements simultaneously, sustainability and gentrification. If gentrification outpaces sustainability, low-income people don’t benefit. And gentrification can exacerbate socioeconomic pressures among neighborhoods in transition.

Josh Singer and his team tackle this problem head on in Washington’s Park View community with Wangari Gardens, a three-acre garden park run for and by the community. Wangari’s grass-roots effort doesn’t rely on social media. Instead, it opts for old-fashioned measures such as fliers and open garden festivals to draw the community in.

Singer calls the method “responsible development,” where the community is active in all aspects of the garden, from the design all the way to leadership. It operates with its own system of checks and balances. To have a personal plot, individuals must spend at least two hours a month tending the public plot, which has fruit trees and a medicinal and herb garden.

Singer said education is the key. Trainings happen often for community members who want to take a leadership role in the running of the garden. They hold gardening workshops that aim to debunk the myth that gardening is hard, or not everyone can do it.

Wangari, like Common Good, exists to fill a gap that economic disparities create. They are both open gardens that seek to level the field of who has access to fresh foods.

“You don’t want to be a gatekeeper,” Singer said. “You want to empower people and give them choice over their own garden.”