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Wednesday, April 24,2013

Justice league

Local groups make fresh produce available for urban areas

by Laura Johnson
Laura Johnson/City Pulse
A hand-painted sign, marking one of Village Summit’s five community gardens, reads: “This is made to feed everybody.” It’s a powerful statement in the middle of a food desert.  

Village Summit, a community center and garden project in Fabulous Acres, just south of Lansing’s REO Town district, is in a neighborhood with little access to healthy food. People with limited mobility, low income or without transportation often rely on convenience stores for their dietary needs. 

“You can’t get a balanced diet from lottery tickets, beer and cigarettes,” said Marcus Brown, founder of Village Summit. “And you can’t get a balanced diet when you don’t have fresh produce.”

Brown and his wife, Chitra Pulliam, founded Village Summit four years ago, using their retirement savings to purchase the abandoned house next door to their home, 119 E. Barnes St. Prompted by the escalating violence, nutritional problems and uneven educational playing field they saw in their neighborhood, they made it their goal to create a “safe house” and resource center. They provided a small computer lab and, later, a lunch program. They taught kids to play chess and gave away coats, toys and books. Eventually, their mission expanded to include gardens when Brown noticed an empty lot down the street. 

“In our neighborhood, (empty lots) become magnets for people’s old furniture, TV sets and tires,” he explained. So they bought some fruit trees — apple, cherry and pear — and they started a garden. Brown planted corn, tomatoes, hot peppers and spices. Others joined in. 

“Not only do gardens feed people, but they also create an opportunity for people to work together,” Brown said. “It feeds minds, it feeds the body, it does a lot of positive things in the area.” 

Alex Bryan, program manager of the Greater Lansing Food Bank Garden Project, agrees. 

“Gardens are about growing food and cultivating community at the same time,” he said. “It’s about a common space that encourages neighborhood revitalization and social justice.” 

The GLFB’s Garden Project just entered its 30th growing season, with nearly 100 community gardens in the network, including Village Summit. Bryan estimates about 7,000 people were served last year — and demand is growing fast. Just a few years ago, there were only 25 gardens in the area. 

“We look at it as our way of providing people with knowledge, resources and skills to empower themselves by growing their own food,” Bryan said. “Everyone’s food needs can’t be met by growing a community garden, but we can definitely take a piece out of the picture.”  

Like Village Summit’s mission, the central belief of the Garden Project is “food justice” —  that everyone should have the right to eat, grow and buy fresh, healthy food that´s good for the environment, regardless of race, income, mobility or location. 

“There are definitely areas in Lansing where access to food is very difficult,” Bryan said. “If you don’t have a car, it’s not easy to get food, and so community gardens are one approach to solving that issue.” 

Many gardeners served by the Garden Project and its partners are low income. They range from students to families, from single parents to refugee and immigrant communities. Some of the gardens are in schools, some at churches or food pantry sites. Many are more traditional community gardens, started through a demand in the neighborhood and located in open, public locations. There are plots available, and gardeners sign up for their own. 

“They get a plot for the year, they grow food and do as they please,” Bryan said. “Some give to friends, some donate back, some use it for their families, some can and preserve it.” 

While it’s ultimately up to individual gardeners, the majority of the gardens believe strongly in organic practices, and the Garden Project provides the encouragement and resources to do so. There are also communal models, like Village Summit, where everyone works in a garden together and takes a share. Some have group workdays, like Learning Leaves Community Gardens on Lansing’s Eastside. Still more models are emerging, like GLFB’s Lansing Roots and the upcoming Allen Market Place, shifting the scale to markets and helping people connect their food products to local food systems. 

REO Town’s Just B Yoga blends gardening with its community-driven yoga practice, in line with its mission of social justice and empowerment. And for beginning gardeners who might be more comfortable starting with just a plant or two, there are programs like Allen Neighborhood Center’s Garden-in-a-Box, in which neighbors with low income, low mobility or who are new to gardening can receive a free 2-foot-by-2-foot box, planted with vegetables. 

“Growing my own veggies is a feeling of ownership and achievement,” said Anji Reynolds, ANC’s gardening educator. “Teaching people gardening skills so they can be self-sufficient and expand what they do is important. Maybe this year it’s a box, and next year it grows.”

Whatever the reason — activism, connection, cost savings, nutrition, environmentalism or the simple pleasures of growing and eating good food — gardens are growing together with communities in Lansing. Spring might actually show up this year, and it’s almost planting time — time to get those hands dirty.  

If you’re interested in starting or joining a community garden, call the GLFB Garden Project at (517) 853-7800 or go to greaterlansingfoodbank.org/the-garden-project.

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