Food & Farming

Peas, Stat! Community Gardens on Front Lines of Food Security

Providence’s network of community gardens has made pandemic-related adjustments to help neighbors during this difficult time and to keep pace with the public’s increased interest in growing food. (Doug Victor)

In Gabriel Garcia Marques’ novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” an outbreak of disease serves as the backdrop to a fraught but beautiful portrait of people falling in love.

Disaster can make the simple things richer, more poignant, and as we enter what feels like year three of physical distancing because of the global coronavirus pandemic, gardening has become one of the precious gems that people are holding on to. It’s also a way that many make a living and feed their families, and this public-health crisis has forced organizations and farmers to find creative solutions to keep their livelihoods intact.

Here are three snapshots of community gardens in Providence, and how they are adapting to life in the time of COVID-19:

The (Virtual) Garden of Earthly Delights
For 28 years, throngs of people have lined up on West Clifford Street to get their garden-gloved hands on some Southside Community Land Trust (SCLT) plants. The annual Rare & Unusual Plant Sale at SCLT’s City Farm is an epic event, drawing hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people to an urban farm to pick and choose what they will plant in their home plots.

“For some, this ends up being a rite of spring,” said Shana Santow, SCLT’s development director. “Last year we had over 2,000 attendees over the course of two days. People line up an hour or two before the event starts, around the block, to get in.

“This year is a little different in light of the pandemic. It’s been so interesting to try and reshape this year’s sale.”

Initially, however, it wasn’t certain that the sale would even be held.

“We didn’t know that we were going to be able to make it happen,” Santow said. “Rich Pederson, our farm steward, started seeding in February, so we started having seedlings germinating before all of this started, and as we saw how serious things were getting, we realized that there was no way that we could have a gathering or have a plant sale in its usual form.”

It took some convincing and many a brainstorm session, but eventually SCLT realized that now, more than ever, people need access to plants to grow their own food.

“There was a conversation about giving them all away and not seeding anything else to sell, but we then realized just how important it was to be able to get all these plants for growing food out to the community,” Santow said. “People are really having to diversify the way they are sourcing food. We’re seeing so many people in the community losing their jobs and being socially isolated, and we realized what an important role growing and gardening has for a lot of people.”

Plus, people were worriedly calling to make sure the sale was still happening.

“Some people were a little panicky about it,” Santow said. “They were relieved to find out that we are still having it. But in addition to the regulars, we’ve had increased interest across the board. That was the first sign that this was going to be an exceptional year. … I’ve been seeing that people are turning to gardening as an outlet right now, and as a necessity.”

But this year instead of people lining up on the sidewalk and rubbing shoulders with neighbors over which tomato plant to choose, the annual plant sale is going virtual.

The plant sale is scheduled to begin May 12 (May 11 for members) and will run through May 21. Customers can buy plants online and select a day and time to pick them up.

“People will pull up on Linden street, text us to let us know that they are there, we’ll pull their order, they’ll pop open their trunk, and they’re off,” Santow said.

Members have first-day dibs, a perk of membership, but SCLT will keep any eye on orders to prevent the hoarding of certain plants, such as sun gold tomatoes.

“We are limiting purchases within certain varieties like sun gold tomatoes, which are the toilet paper of the plant sale,” Santow said with a laugh. “We don’t want people hoarding them. We want to make sure there’s enough to go around.”

SCLT will also be adding an option for delivery, for those who can’t make it to the sale, and is working to donate upwards of 3,000 plants to people who are hurting during this difficult time.

“Connecting people with plants is really important now,” Santow said. “And we’ve had so many people who have come forth and are trying to figure out how to help from a distance, and we have a lot of really generous people in the community that want to support their neighbors any way they can. I think that’s been one of the nice things to see coming out of all this.”

The Garden of Peace and Plenty
For Doug Victor, a garden leader at the Peace and Plenty community garden in the city’s Elmwood neighborhood, there is joy in getting his hands dirty. There’s also the potential to help others during this stressful time.

“The garden’s outside in the fresh air and sunshine, which is good for our immune systems, and people are planting,” Victor said. “For people to be able to put their fingers in the soil and plant food is always like an act of hope in the spring, and I think this year is especially poignant because of COVID-19.”

Gardening has seen a resurgence as of late, not just because it’s meditative, but also because it’s practical: you can grow food to feed yourself and your family.

At the time of this writing, the University of Rhode Island Master Gardner’s seed program was depleted of the free seeds it gives out in partnership with Ocean State Job Lot.

“We had a lot of requests for seeds as the interest in gardening grew this spring,” said Vanessa Venturini, director of the program. “We can only hope that more Rhode Islanders will grow a portion of their own food long after this period of social isolation.”

In addition to a run on seeds, chicken hatcheries around the country have been receiving an astounding number of orders for chicks, as isolated people turn backyards into homesteads. The Cackle Hatchery, in Lebanon, Mo., hatches some 250,000 baby chickens each week, and has seen a 100 percent increase in sales this so far year.

But while private gardens have seen a resurgence, not everyone has a backyard or plot of land to plant carrots. That’s where community gardens come in.

Victor and the other gardeners at Peace and Plenty, which is part of SCLT’s garden network, are planning to turn a section of the garden into a space to grow food for those who have become food insecure as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s a time of uncertainty,” Victor said. “Is there going to be a shortage of food? We think local access is even more important in the face of all those questions, and not only local access, but also just really beefing up how maybe a community garden can support increased food insecurity. So we decided to create a food corridor.”

Corn, okra, squash, pumpkins, and a special bed for cut-flowers, such as sunflowers, will find a home in the new food corridor at Peace and Plenty. And while Victor is still ironing out the details of how people in need will have access to what is grown, he’s confident that it will find its way to them.

“In the past, we had someone garden here who worked for the Rhode Island Food Bank, and they would help us figure out a way to donate excess produce,” Victor said. “So, it isn’t a brand-new idea. We also have a new gardener who has connections at the food bank, so we’re following the leads we get. I’m certain that we will make a few contacts, and our produce will have a home.”

The Gardens of Change and Perseverance
A few blocks away on Diamond Street is another community garden — one of six, plus a farm in Johnston — that is run by the African Alliance of Rhode Island (AARI). Tended by a group of immigrant farmers, they grow a variety of produce, such as callaloo, garden eggs, and sweet potato leaves, to feed their families and to sell at farmers markets.

The organization and its farmers also started an initiative in 2018 that provided access to fresh produce in locations that serve food-insecure populations.

“We began another project, a pop-up farmers market, that takes fresh vegetables to predominantly food-insecure populations,” said Julius Kolawole, an AARI co-founder. “We have been very successful with this. Late last year we had invitations … to expand it to eight different locations.”

But now, everything has changed.

“With the virus, it has completely changed the way we do things,” Kolawole said. “We’ve been having conversations about how we are going to do the gardening; how are we going to run the farm; are we going to do pre-order? How are we going to adapt to the changes, because at the end of the day, every one of us must be able to go home safe and well to our family, and that is the underlying factor in anything we want to do moving forward.”

How will the farmers sell their produce this year? Is it worth growing as much as they did in the past? These are among the questions that the farmers have brought to Kolawole, and ones that he hopes to answer.

“Two people asked me if they should reduce their growing; should we cut down on the amount of things we are going to grow because if our customers don’t have money, they cannot come out, it’s going to be a waste,” Kolawole said. “We’re also thinking if that is true, is it possible to think of a third leg to this. Is there a way to find subsidies to compensate the farmers, and we can donate whatever yield they may have to a food bank, maybe to elderly people? We don’t have an answer to that yet.”

Kolawole also noted that not only will the farmers’ livelihood be challenged, but also the relationships that gardening and selling produce cultivates.

“It’s going to change the chemistry, the relationships,” he said. “The farmers market basically is a socializing environment. You meet friends; you shake hands; you hug; you stand there and talk for a little bit. I describe it as relationships used to be three inches apart, maybe zero inches apart. Now we have to learn to stand at six feet apart. That by itself is difficult.”

But hope remains.

“We’re also thinking how can we look at it as an advantage,” Kolawole said. “And we are also reminding ourselves that this will come and pass.”

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  1. We need another 1000 community gardens in Providence. Just about every garden has a waiting list for beds, and there will be more food insecure folks than ever. Thanks to my friends Doug and Julius for helping get the word out.

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