Sunday, June 27, 2010

A New Appreciation for Farmer's Markets and Community Gardens: It's Not All Peaches and Cream

Hello Friends! Excuse my two week absence, I have been either too busy or too lazy (as a survivor, you must learn self-preservation skills) to post, but I do have a lot to share. In recent months the law of attraction has really been in play. Everywhere I turn (even at work), I am encountering folk, some of whom I would not associate with gardens, involved with farming, farmer's markets or community gardens. Some examples:
  • Met a college student at the women's summit that started a farmer's market downtown
  • Met an environmental justice activist and attorney involved in community gardening projects
  • Asked by my son's aunt Lisa to assist with the marketing of a farmer's market in an urban neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Fellow treehuggers open one of only two black owned CSA's in Cleveland
  • Family members manage and secure a community garden near the projects
  • My brother gets into the windmill business and may build one for the community garden greenhouse
  • Joined a local food group in Cincinnati (as part of an effort to promote Lisa's farmer's market) and learn of the trials and tribulations of producers trying to grow good clean food.
  • Attend an annual meeting of the nation's oldest foundation and the keynote speaker, Lily Yeh (amazing and beautiful woman), is known for her community art and garden installments across the world (starting in inner city Philadelphia) . Was fortunate enough to attend a community leadership workshop she facilitated the next day.
All of these encounters were not the result of conscious attempts to meet these people, but through my thoughts (turn on the Twilight Zone soundtrack). The power of attraction. Now I'm just waiting on that $100 million to show up in my account! Through these encounters I have learned that the process of growing organic food, starting and running a farmer's market and nurturing a community garden in the city can be complex and unwieldy. Worthwhile, but not as romantic as it may seem. Here is what I learned:
  • There are many challenges to starting a farmer's market or community garden in the city, two of the greatest are security and community support/engagement. It is essential to treat the residents with respect and dignity and to involve them early in the process. One should also be aware of criminal elements and gangs in the city and have some sort of outreach to involve them in the process (this is crucial to success), but there will always be folks who want to have what they want, when they want it and how they want it, so tight security is a MUST. I know of two gardens that have 24 hour security. Security and community engagement is also crucial to attract farmers or local food producers. One member of the local food group told me that Lisa may have difficulty attracting farmers due to the perception of crime in the area. Wow! Understandable, but the revelation still caught me off guard.
  • One must be prepared to educate, enlighten and be enlightened. Due to decades long absences of grocery stores in many urban areas (food deserts) and the explosion of packaged, processed foods, many of us are unfamiliar with how to prepare meals with a variety of fresh produce. The concept of making a salad without iceberg lettuce is unfathomable. What in the world does one do with a squash, much less an eggplant? I can certainly relate to this, because to this day, I go to farmers markets and see some veggies and feel clueless about how I would prepare them, so I keep moving until I find some greens or tomatoes. Heck, many young people don't even know how to cook , having been raised on canned/boxed food found in the dollar stores and "dollar menu" items. Someone told me that their daughter prefers boxed macaroni and cheese to homemade. What??!!! Having been raised on boxed mac and cheese myself, I almost passed out with palate pleasing pleasure the first time that I had some homemade mac and cheese at a church community dinner, but I digress. The CSA has been great for me, because you get what you get and I have added diversity and fresh new flavors/combinations to my produce diet. Many residents, like most Americans are unfamiliar with the connection of diet to overall health and the benefits of eating a plant based diet. There are also perceptions about the affordability of fruit and vegetables. So there is a need to a lot of advance work and complementary marketing of your market or garden to show people WIIFM - "what's in it for me". That should really be your mantra, because that is what most people care about - themselves. So you have to make your case and make it in a fun, exciting and engaging way.Cooking demonstrations, cooking contests, health fairs that show the diet/health connection, music and drama, art and engaging children are all ways of introducing people to good living through diet. Tracye Lynn McWhirter, the author of the new book By Any Greens Necessary: A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat, has done a great job of this. In fact, I think the title of her book and her activities, exemplifies the message of this post.
  • Appreciation for the efforts of the food producers is essential. On a daily basis through the food group emails, I learn of the challenges these folks tackle in growing healthy food for our consumption. They battle insects, moles, groundhogs, fungus, isolation, ambivilance, poverty, lack of technical expertise and ignorance in an effort to show up at the farmer's markets every week with their bright bounty of love. So please be mindful of this and thank them for what they do and truly feel blessed  by God when you are eating this good stuff. Be mindful as you eat of all of the work that went into bringing these delights to our table.
  • Persistance, perseverance, an open mind and faith are tools you will need to build the farmer's market or community garden of your dreams. Sometimes it may take years for your idea to catch on, but if you really believe in your mission, you should be prepared to suffer through the trials, disappointments, dismay, ignorance, disrespect and non-chalance, but when the spark finally catches that dried up, gnarled, thirsty piece of kindling, watch out! You will have a glorious, bright, warm bonfire on your hands  that everyone wants to enjoy. You will light up the lives and spirits of the community. So keep on keeping on. A good book that gives actual accounts of people surviving and thriving in the community garden setting is Edens Lost & Found: How Ordinary Citizens Are Restoring Our Great American Cities, you can read more about Lily Yeh there.
  • Finally, don't leave good business sense at home, understand the expenses associated with each venture and the amount of revenue needed to generate a profit. Even a non-profit organization fairs well if you are maximizing the return on your investment of time and resources and generating more than you put in.The excess can be used to expand your programs or save for a rainy day.Also, understand that when dealing with folks, property and food, insurance is crucial as well as strong liability reduction measures.
Okay, my fingers hurt, so it much be time to signoff. Hopefully, this post has given you a better sense of what it takes to green our communities and our meals.



Beckie said...

I live right outside of Cleveland. Can you post more about the black-owned CSA's there?

Amy in Tacoma said...

Thanks, Gloria, this is great information!

Teri said...

I am from Cleveland and now live in Denver. Thank you for your blog. I am starting a blog about loving and living a healthy lifeystyle. I am also an ecobroker (real estate agent who sells green whenever possible). What blog site are you using?

GLORIA said...

Hi Teri!We send our greetings from CLEEEV Land! Welcome to the world of blogging, I have met so many folks I consider to be among friends now. I use Google's Blogger site, easy to use and lots of tools but no service.My son edited the template to give me a third column. Be sure to let me know when u have ur first post, I will give u a shout out and add u to my blogroll. I wd love to learn more about finding resources for green home improvement. Take care and congrats!