by Samantha Marsh | Photos by Elaine Papa
Kale, collards, blueberries, and salad greens are just some of the many fruits and vegetables that are produced from the urban garden on Hancock Street in downtown Springfield. The garden space, which is also home to a weekly community-supported agriculture (CSA) pickup, sits atop a previously vacant space owned by neighboring company Mitchell Machine. This urban garden is one of the three (and soon to be four) formerly abandoned spaces that Springfield-based food justice organization Gardening the Community (GTC) has transformed into flourishing community gardens.
GTC is committed to sustainability, and they showcase that commitment through the environmentally conscious decisions they make for their different garden sites. All produce is grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides and they are cautious about the origins of any seed donations. Solar panels are used to run irrigation and the battery is also charged by bicycle power. In order to provide food for the community for as long as possible considering the New England climate, GTC aims to stretch the growing season by growing certain produce in a hoop house during the colder months. Since its foundation in 2002, GTC has continually worked toward increasing the amount of healthy and local fruits and vegetables available to people living in the the Six Corner neighborhood in downtown Springfield.
In recent years there have been increased efforts to tackle the issue of certain urban areas becoming “food deserts,” or areas where there is limited access to nutritious and affordable food. Community-based organizations such as GTC in Springfield and Nuestras Raices in Holyoke have addressed this issue through the development of youth-based agriculture programs. GTC has been invested in increasing youth involvement in agriculture since its foundation. GTC was originally founded by Betsy Corner, the former social justice coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), and Ruby Maddox, a resident of Springfield who continues to serve on the organization’s board.
In its infant stages, GTC recruited youth from the surrounding neighborhood to grow produce on their community gardens to sell to local stores. Today, GTC continues to trains youth from the community in all aspects of the organization. The youth help run the GTC tents at the Mason Square and Six Corner farmers’ markets, where they sell GTC produce, deliver produce by bicycle to the farmers’ market as well as local restaurants and bodegas, help organize GTC Eats! (GTC’s farm share program which is supplied with produce from Next Barn Over in Hadley), and help to plant, grow, and harvest the produce from all of GTC’s sites. The youth are also involved in several food justice initiatives through GTC, and many serve on GTC’s board committee.
The organization hosts “work parties” where members of the surrounding community and nearby colleges come to help with larger projects. GTC also hosts a number of fundraisers, such as an annual pancake breakfast, that help fund some of GTC’s initiatives. Development Associate Gabriella della Croce explains that the pancake breakfast is popular among GTC employees and volunteers, and is a great way to showcase some of their delicious fall produce. Pancake flavors include sweet potato, apple, carrot, and chocolate chip.
Anne Richmond, program director, explains that the organization stresses the importance of youth involvement from their immediate community (the Six Corner and Mason Square neighborhoods). “We do talks at schools and school groups come here to visit,” Richmond says, “but we really encourage kids in the neighborhood [to get involved].” Eighteen-year-old Moises Ramos-Hernandez has been involved with GTC for four years. He got started after he heard about the organization through friends and has since become one of the leaders of the bike team that delivers produce throughout the community. Similar to Moises, youth member Sean Hallowell heard about GTC through family and friends in the community. Sean started volunteering at GTC during the summers, but is now involved year-round. Sean helps with various aspects of the organization—from watering and weeding at the garden sites to biking produce to farmers markets and working at the GTC tent. Sean’s favorite part of working with GTC is selling produce at the farmers’ market. “I love greeting people with smiles,” he says.
Qamaria Amatul-Wadud, youth and farm/sales and market manager, has been involved with GTC for 12 years, since she was 13 years old. With years of urban agriculture experience under her belt, Qamaria now uses that knowledge to help lead the young people who are involved with GTC. “I love hanging out with the youth in the summers,” Qamaria says with a chuckle. “They bring such youthful conversations and knowledge about what’s going on,” she continues. Talib Toussaint, food justice and community outreach manager, shares Qamaria’s sentiments. “The youth are the coolest.”
GTC provides youth members with a stipend to work at the organization, and offers them the opportunity to gain skills in leadership and agriculture. While most of the youth volunteer and work at GTC throughout the busier summer months, 15 young people (ranging from sixth through 12th grade) stay through the winter and participate in GTC’s winter curriculum, which includes workshops on leadership skills, public speaking, and urban and sustainable agriculture. The youth have the opportunity to become a youth leader once they work with GTC over both the summer and winter months. After two summers and one winter they can become a youth project leader, and then may be invited to join GTC’s board.
Toussaint, a Springfield native, loves GTC because it gives him an opportunity to give back to the community that raised him. After graduating from Westfield State College with a focus on ethnic and gender studies and race and social equality, Toussaint came back to Springfield to apply the knowledge he had gained in his courses in a hands-on setting. Toussaint has helped to organize workshops led by community experts on topics such as soil nutrients, cooking and recipes, and a national “undoing racism” workshop. “This is a way to truly give back to your community,” he says. “I cherish that responsibility.”
Learn more about Gardening the Community at www.gardeningthecommunity.org.