Jim Foudy: Grow Food Northampton plants seeds of inclusion

Last modified: Saturday, August 08, 2015

FLORENCE — Build it and they will come. Well, they will if they know about it and feel welcome.

That was the challenge Grow Food Northampton faced after opening its organic community garden plots. Organizers looked around and saw mostly white, native English-speakers working the soil. Information sheets and registration materials were offered in Spanish, but clearly a different approach was needed to reach immigrants, Latinos and underserved communities.

This is one of Grow Food’s goals. Launched in 2009, its mission was always bigger than adding to the stock of the city’s community garden plots. Grow Food wants people of all backgrounds, especially immigrants and non-English speakers, to know about the garden and feel welcome.

“We want to help address food insecurity by opening up access to low-income people to grow some of their own,” said Clem Clay, executive director of Grow Food. While garden plots are recreational for some, others grow crops to sustain their families.

The grassroots nonprofit runs the largest community farm in Massachusetts, on permanently preserved land along the Mill River in Florence. The land is home to a CSA, three small farms specializing in livestock, herbs and grains for breweries, as well as the seven-acre community garden, which opened in 2012. The 20-by-20-foot plots rent for $30 each. This year 276 are available and there is a waiting list.

Grow Food supplies water, access to compost and mulch hay, a shed full of tools and training in organic gardening. Plot holders must work three hours a season on general maintenance of land and facilities.

Pat James, who coordinates the volunteer work, says the goal is “for everyone to have skin in the game.” Grow Food offers a 20 percent discount for senior citizens and 80 percent for low-income residents who are receiving SNAP benefits. This year, James estimates 10-15 percent of the gardeners are getting a discount. Combined with several free buckets of compost, water hook-ups and access to tools, income barriers to being a community gardener are greatly reduced.

But what about language and cultural barriers?

Developing a homogeneous organization is easy. Commitment to broad access and inclusion means reaching people for whom English is not the first language, who are not tuned in to traditional community news and information channels, and for whom the culture of Northampton is foreign.

Santa Garcia is a case in point. A native of Puerto Rico, the Northampton resident teaches Spanish at Holyoke Community College. She often drove by the community gardens curious as to what was going on. One day she stopped to ask. Garcia wanted in and she wanted to tell other Latinos.

“I’m always working to help Spanish-speaking people learn English and learn to get along in a dominant English-language culture,” she said. Grow Food had a new missionary.

Last year she connected with Jackson Street School teacher Mary Cowey and her organization, Families with Power, to invite Latino families and others to a garden information session. A few from that meeting signed up, but their success was mixed.

James explains that while registration and basic information packets were available in Spanish, the twice-monthly garden bulletins were translated by volunteers and did not always go out simultaneously with the English edition. The bulletin contains key seasonal information, explanations of policies and policy changes, notices of free seeds and supplies and opportunities for gardeners to meet the annual volunteer service requirement. Some plots failed in part because gardeners were not getting information in a timely manner.

This year Garcia and Grow Food hosted another information meeting in February at her home. The place was packed. Some of last year’s gardeners were on hand for a Q&A. The meeting ended with everyone piling into cars to go see the garden area despite snow and bitter cold. Enthusiasm was high and 12 more families signed on.

Grow Food now pays a translator to make sure everyone gets information at the same time. This lifts the language barrier and also sends an important message. “It says that the gardens are a welcoming place for all people, regardless of background,” explains Gaby Immerman, a Grow Food board member.

“In the first year or two the gardens were one demographic. That’s changing. The garden is a community and this community increasingly reflects the multicultural face of Northampton,” said Immerman.

Race, class and background don’t matter out in the field. The work is the same, and all skills are welcome.

Many of the immigrants were farmers in their homelands and have plenty to teach. There is a spirit of shared community. Gardeners help each other. They talk about tomato varieties and Colorado potato beetles and this leads to other conversations and connections.

Immerman likes to call gardening the “great equalizer.” Garcia says she expects a higher success rate for Latino growers this year and she predicts more will sign up for plots next year, joining the Anglos, Chinese, African, Indian and Arabic people who are finding common ground in the rich soil along the Mill River.

Jim Foudy of Northampton, a former editor and publisher of the Gazette, writes on the third Saturday of the month.


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