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Urban Farms Aim to Build Bridges to Low-Income Communities

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Oliver Baron harvests Swiss chard at the Common Good City Farm in LeDroit Park. Until recently, 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.

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.”

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