How one Ohio nonprofit is trying to give people power over their food
It’s not clear the small plot of land on the north side of Youngstown is a community garden. At least not anymore.
Weeds stretch toward the sky, where there once was rows of bright beets and tall turnips. Without dedicated growers, Jubilee Gardens has fallen into disrepair. But on a Friday evening in July, a small group of people are planting.
They’re led by local farmer Jessie Holland who stood at a table of seeds, brushing the dew off of wide green leaves, as she rattled through which fall crops the group will focus on today.
“Kale is a really nice plant to grow around here,” she said. “Our clay rich soil loves kale.”
The plentiful greens on Holland’s table aren’t accessible to many in the northeast Ohio city. The majority of Youngstown lives more than a mile away from a grocery store. And, according to food advocates in the area, that’s not the only issue to getting nutritious food: there’s transportation and cost and limited healthy options once folks get to those markets.
The Mahoning Food Access Initiative aims to get fresh, healthy food to people directly, by teaching them to grow it. It hopes its gardening lessons can give Youngstown residents more of a choice in what they consume.
“If we're telling them they need to eat their whole foods and to have access to them, we also need to include growing it,” said Sophia Buggs, Mahoning Food Access Initiative director.
Taking back control
Bob Hayes bobbed a toddler on his lap as he planted. He attended the gardening lessons because he wanted to take control of his diet – in a way he’s not usually able to.
“Youngstown is a food desert,” he said. “So you don't have a lot of access to a lot of healthy foods. So that really plays a part in a lot of the symptoms and diseases that people have going on here.”
Hayes is vegan and wants to find organic vegetables, grown sustainably, for his family. But he can’t make a farmer’s market appear in his neighborhood or force large grocery corporations to carry that kind of food. His diet – and food access in Youngstown – is largely out of his control.
Director Buggs said community members deserve more power over what goes on their plates. By growing their own food, Buggs said the community can build so-called “food sovereignty," or the right to access healthy and sustainably-grown foods.
“You have the ability, the knowledge, the wisdom and the access to do it,” she said. “Not just go to a store and get it but also go to a land and pick it or grow it.”
While the term "food desert" has become more common in recent years, the concept of food sovereignty has mostly been related to tribal communities. It’s about the right of self-determination over your food, and it can be seen in every type of community.
“Food sovereignty is giving people the power, and the opportunity to meet their food needs in a way that they choose that is best for them,” said Brandy Phipps, associate professor at Central State University, who studies food systems.
Rather than thinking of places like Youngstown as "food deserts," Phipps said a better phrase would be “food apartheid” – because the lack of access to food isn’t natural. It’s the result of decisions, she said, often made by corporations and politicians from outside of those areas.
And those decisions have an impact. People in these under-resourced areas are more likely to have diet-related diseases, like cardiovascular disease. A recent study even shows living in a food desert correlates to a shorter life expectancy.
“This is a created situation that we have the responsibility to remedy,” Phipps said.
“Food sovereignty is giving people the power, and the opportunity to meet their food needs in a way that they choose that is best for them."Brandy Phipps, Central State University associate professor
She said that remedy can look like non-profit gardening classes, like the one the Mahoning Food Access Initiative is offering. But, that’s far from its only form. It can also look like cities donating land to citizens who want to grow food, or groups bonding together to start a local fish farm.
And there’s another benefit to classes like the one Buggs is offering, beyond the food.
“To be healthy, you need more than just food available in your community, you need health literacy,” Phipps said. “When people can gather and talk about food and talk about how to make food and how to grow food, then you're increasing health and nutrition literacy.”
Planting the seed
Still, it takes time, and work – and a lot of failing – to be able to grow your own food. So far, Hayes hasn’t been discouraged. It’s the opposite: he feels empowered.
“To be able to know where everything that we’re putting on our body and in our body, we know where it’s coming from and what it is exactly,” he said.
Hayes said he plans on attending all the summer lessons and bringing his three kids to each class. At this lesson, the kids took turns scooping dirt into a pot. Their small hands patted the soil, carefully planting a seed.
Hopefully, it will grow into something they can put on their plates.