December 3, 2014

The Value of Land and Connection to Food

by Mya Roberson '16

Mya is a member of the 2014-15 TRI-Lab on Healthy Food Access. With her TRI-Lab colleagues she is working to develop a sustainable model for bringing fresh fruits and vegetables into low-income neighborhoods.

“We need more land,” said one of the African Alliance gardeners during a community meeting that I had the privilege of sitting in on.

 With those words ringing in my ears, I was mentally taken back to my childhood in a tiny town where agriculture is the only industry.

A sharp contrast from Providence, there is no dearth of land where I come from. I recalled pears falling daily and picking cherries for desserts from the trees in our backyard. For a time, my mom had a large garden in which she raised peppers, tomatoes, green beans, and anything that could be conceivably grown on our mountainous land. I wondered if the women of the African Alliance were similarly surprised by the lack of farmable land when they came to Providence.

Here I was at this meeting, witnessing women hailing from Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo growing frustrated that there was not enough land to maintain their livelihoods or a greenhouse to grow fruits and vegetables year round. By bearing witness to this frustration and hearing that there is a waiting list of people looking for space to garden, I realized that I didn’t value the 37 acres I grew up with as much as I should have.

Feeling a little guilty about our now unused acreage at home, I began asking the gardeners some questions to delve a little deeper into their experiences here in Providence. Common themes emerged: not enough space to grow, the magnitude of work required to harvest, having to make arrangements to go to the farmer’s markets to sell.

Upon hearing the women’s apprehension about making it to the farmer’s markets to sell, I asked them how it could help if the Fresh-to-You Market, my TRI-Lab work group, purchased their produce in bulk and sold it for them. They expressed some excitement, but to my surprise, they had reservations about such an arrangement and said that one aspect of their enjoyment was seeing non-Africans buying their African vegetables in large quantities at the market.

This connection to their food was a clear source of pride for the gardeners. Through their efforts, the diets of many Rhode Islanders have become a little more diverse.

In that moment, I had nothing but admiration for the women of the African Alliance, and the sophistication of this operation. In rural Pennsylvania, where space is abundant, gardening and growing are easy; it is part of the culture. The women gardeners of African Alliance are fully utilizing limited agricultural resources in a place with little agrarian industry to give Rhode Island a small taste of Africa.

 

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