Gardening the Community: Lessons From Youth Leaders

That food justice organization in Six Corners--those kids who grow gardens where nothing but weeds and garbage stood before--they’re good neighbors to have, especially when you live in a nationally recognized food desert.

Gardening the Community, a youth-led non-profit that gardens urban lots in Springfield, MA and sells their produce at a local farmer’s market, has learned from other gardeners and farmers who have taken the health of their communities and families into their own hands. GtC has neighbors both near and far; they have learned from organic farmers in Milwaukee, WI who heat their greenhouse with compost, an idea Gardening the Community Youth Director Ibrahim Ali admired on a visit; then there is the group, Nuestras Raíces, based in nearby Holyoke, MA, a food justice organization which also has youth-run gardens.
They work closely with the people who live nearby and when people walk by the gardens, GtC workers greet them. Strangers and neighbors alike are invited to come in and visit, and learn what GtC is doing here. When dogs visit the gardens, they are shooed away. Ali approaches the dogs’ owners and since everyone already knows everyone else, he handles the issue like neighbors should, without rancor. Keeping the community peace is more important than a few plants.

Gardening the Community has been in Springfield for ten years and, befitting an organization that has grown into its position among community leaders, they mentor other groups that want to take up urban gardening. They help the Girl’s Club and a veteran’s group, among others, to grow their own food on plots in the city, whether it is at the local library or on their own grounds. The group knows how to approach the city and other property owners for permission, as well as where and how to get soil tested, very important first steps to anyone wishing to begin community gardens.

Two of GtC’s plots are owned by a local business, Mitchell Machine, but the group got started growing on abandoned properties that had been repossessed by the city for back taxes. They got permission from local groups as well as city administrators, but that didn’t keep the city from trying to push the group off land that they hoped to develop or sell. Nowadays, the group enjoys more favor with the city, as well as with other funding agencies. Originally a project of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the group put down local roots, and now has a fiscal relationship with Gasoline Alley, another non-profit.
GtC grows organically, using no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. In the winter, GtC youth choose seeds from catalogues. A new greenhouse is going up on one of the plots, which will reduce the group’s dependence on neighboring farms for starter plants, their other source of garden plants. They compost, collect rainwater, and experiment liberally with organic growing practices: they grow basil among the tomato plants to repel pests and improve flavor and their permaculture lettuce is a tightly spiraling marvel, almost entirely free of weeds. Traditional raised rows of white and sweet potatoes needed a heavy weeding on a recent morning in the Hancock Street garden, and this reporter bent over rows with a handful of youth workers who chattered about their mutual friends and relatives in the neighborhood as we worked.
On June 1, a tornado tore across Springfield, damaging homes and businesses. One of GtC’s gardens sustained damage, but the most critical harm came in the form of displacement of their workers. Nearly half of the young people who worked in GtC’s gardens before June 1 are gone now, living in other parts of the city, state, or beyond, while their homes or schools await repair. Families who suffered damage and remain in the area are part of a new GtC program: a farm share called GTC EATS, supplied by Next Barn Over, a CSA farm in Hadley, MA. Thirty families now benefit from the weekly shares, some of which are delivered by bicycle.

The produce grown in the three Gardening the Community plots are brought to market by bicycle, too. The youth sell their fruits, vegetables, and flowers at the Mason Square Farmer’s Market, which materializes on a busy intersection in Springfield every Saturday during the farm season.
Most of the workers who garden and sell in the market this summer are new employees, paid by a state program to employ at-risk youth during the summer months. High school kids who’ve only worked with Gardening the Community for a couple weeks express a sense of mastery, and responsibility. Elmer Rodriguez, one staffer who works through the Massachusetts Career Development Institute program, described how, while some “other” kids might just hand off their free produce to a parent and forget about it, the GtC kids were more motivated to learn how to prepare the food they grew. Healthy attitudes toward food, knowing how it grows, and making healthy foods a part of the lives of the families that live in Springfield: these are the best fruits of Gardening the Community.

Justin Cascio believes that everyone deserves to eat well. He writes about food, focusing on both the ethical and the hedonistic aspects of eating locally sourced, homemade food and sharing it with other people. Justin is a year-round bicycle commuter, and writes about cycling for He lives with his husband, their dog, and two cats. Read his blog at: justincooks.