‘Something green is growing here’
In Dorchester, residents of color take urban farming to new heights
According to the old medical adage, you are what you eat. But what if where you live determines what’s on the menu?
Dorchester resident Vernell Jordan was not satisfied with the food choices she had in her neighborhood, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Jordan, an avid gardener, started growing an assortment of colorful, organic vegetables on a small patch of land outside of Dudley Square last year. The land is owned by the Food Project, a Lincoln, Mass.-based nonprofit focused on sustainable agriculture.
“I have always had a love of plants and an appreciation of nature,” she said. “Growing my own food is supporting sustainability for myself and the environment.”
The circumstances that led Jordan to indulge her green thumb may offer some insight into a larger problem in urban communities. In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a study of the nation’s “food deserts” — areas where communities lack access to supermarkets and other sources of affordable, nutritious foods necessary for maintaining a healthy diet.
According to the report, 2.3 million Americans live more than 1 mile from a supermarket and do not have access to a vehicle. The report also notes that minorities and lower-income families are often affected, as “urban core areas with limited food access are characterized by higher levels of racial segregation and greater income inequality.”
The financial impact of the disparity in food access in these communities has been highlighted in recent weeks as the debate over health care reform has raged.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in July that the medical cost of obesity in the United States has reached $147 billion per year, a finding that spurred the CDC to issue its first set of comprehensive recommendations aimed at reducing obesity rates. Approximately 70 percent of all Americans are considered either overweight or obese, but African Americans are disproportionately affected by weight problems and related diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
Here in Boston, there have been a number of efforts launched to address the issue. Kathy Cunningham, a registered dietician with the Boston Public Health Commission, runs the blog Healthy Food on a Budget. The Web site (http://healthyfoodonabudget.wordpress.com) provides nutritional advice for Bostonians with limited incomes and busy lives. She said that making better lifestyle choices is key to dealing with many health problems in the community.
“For the first time this year, not only is there a farmers market selling locally grown, fresh foods every day in almost every section of the city, but the city also started up the Boston Bounty Bucks Program, which allows low-income residents to use vouchers at 14 of these markets and double the value of their food stamps,” Cunningham said. “The city recognizes this lack of healthy foods in communities of color, and we are working on dealing with it.”
While Vernell Jordan supports the idea behind farmers markets, she expounded on the health, economic and environmental benefits of residents growing their own food. Jordan grows 10 different vegetables on her space outside Dudley Square.
“More black people need to be growing their own food because it’s cheaper, we get more Vitamin D by being in the sun gardening, and most importantly, we are giving back to the land,” she said as she picked fresh collard greens from her patch. “More people need to know how to sustain themselves, and this is the way to do it.”
Jordan doesn’t own a car, and the nearest supermarket is a long bus ride away. When she does go to the supermarket, she said, most of the options on the shelves are highly processed and too expensive for her taste.
The Food Project, one of the country’s leading organizations working on food equity, runs a 1.4-acre farm on West Cottage Street that employs about 60 local youth leaders every summer and allows residents like Jordan to grow their own food.
Neighbor Felicio Pina roams the gardens during the day, watching out for potential burglars. He also grows corn and green beans on the land. In fact, he said, his thick, green corn stalks grow taller than others because his seeds come from his native Cape Verde, where food is grown more naturally and with no genetic modifications.
“Something green is growing here,” Pina said in broken English. “The food here is bonita.”
In fact, something green — and yellow, red, purple and orange — is growing in Dorchester. Gardens of all types and sizes are popping up all over this neighborhood, with some residents using part or even all of their yards to grow fruits and veggies like tomatoes, eggplants, grapes, carrots and raspberries.
Carlos Gonzales, assistant manager of the Leyland Street community garden, said that he has seen a unification of people of different racial groups in the area.
“All kinds of people farm here — Puerto Rican, black, Cape Verdean — and they share their food and gardening tips with each other,” Gonzales said. “Food brings people together because everyone has to eat, and they want to be able to eat healthy and take care of the earth.”
Gonzales said he has been farming since he was a child growing up in Puerto Rico, where he still owns farmland. In his Dorchester garden, he grows purple hull peas, believed by botanists to have originated in the West African nation of Niger, and “gandules,” or pigeon peas, a popular ingredient in many Caribbean dishes.
“My garden is purely organic,” he added. “No chemicals here — just nature’s food.”
This is the type of thinking that Scotland Willis, sustainability consultant and candidate for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council, said he would like to see more of in the community. Willis, who has a tomato garden in his yard, said he would like to start a working group that generates community leadership on green issues, especially food management.
“Like the digital divide, there is an environmental divide in the community,” Willis said. “We need to take effective steps to address problems that impact our health and environment.”
For her part, Dorchester resident Jordan is taking the lead on addressing the food system in her neighborhood. She said her next step is to take a formal course in gardening and learn about worm composting.
“My garden inspires me every day, and I hope others will be, too,” she said.
Talia Whyte is a 2009 Urban Environmental Justice Fellow of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California.