Meadow Braun, a clinical health manager in Albany, felt like she was about to lose control of life when the pandemic forced the state into lockdown in March 2020. She and her wife were both working from home and their four-year-old twins were also staying home with them as preschool closed. The overwhelming uncertainty was starting to get to her when she found out about the home gardening program run by Soul Fire Farm on Facebook. She sent in the application and received her gardening kits, including soil, seeds, seedlings and other gardening supplies in April. Planting and caring for the plant in their backyard brought her and her family some peace of mind during the chaotic time.
“We are blessed to have the opportunity to slow our breath, kneel down, and watch for signs of life in the dirt,” stated Braun in a written response to a survey sent by Soul Fire Farm in September of 2020. (Soul Fire Farm declined to make a participant available for an interview.) “Before ever having harvested a single bean, we are nourished by the sight of green sprouts erupting from the ground, the feeling of dirt under our nails, and the smell of the soil. Each leaf brings hope and promise.”
The Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm is based in Grafton, New York, about 20 miles east of Albany. The farm aims to end food apartheid and help Black and brown communities achieve food sovereignty by equipping them with farming techniques. Their Soul Fire in the City program built 40 home gardens in the area in 2020 alone. In 2021, the organization built 15 more gardens. They plan on adding another 10 gardens in the next year.
The program usually starts its outreach for applicants in the winter, prioritizing people impacted by food apartheid, survivors of mass incarceration, refugees and immigrants. Participants start gardening classes in February; with the help of volunteers and mentors, they decide what to grow and when. As all the plans are settled, the farm plants fruit, vegetable and herb seedlings in their greenhouse, ready to be planted in the spring. Participants can choose from over 50 kinds of edible plants. Arugula, basil, bok choy, cantaloupe, and tomato are some of the most popular items . Soul Fire also builds the raised garden beds for participants, bringing in their own soil to avoid potential contamination
In April, volunteers will help transfer the seedlings to participants. Classes continue throughout the growing season, and mentors do check-ins throughout the whole program. The program usually wraps up with a community potluck in September, celebrating the harvest of the year.
“When you find a vegetable your preschoolers will eat, you stock up. For us, that means buying a lot of cucumbers, broccoli, and spinach for smoothies. Having access to these foods in our own backyard is indescribably valuable,” wrote Braun, who is also growing radishes, watermelon and dragon beans, in her testimony.
Soul Fire Farm wishes to help build more gardens every year while maintaining support for the established gardens. More importantly, they want to strengthen connections between participants so they could help each other within the community and even mentor new gardeners in the program.
“As the proverb goes, we don’t only give someone a fish, but teach them how to fish,” says Naima Penniman, program director at Soul Fire Farm.
However, space to grow plants is very limited for most people living in the city. The 4x8-foot raised bed provided by Soul Fire Farm could only grow so much food.
“It’s not enough to account for 100% of people’s vegetable needs by any means, but it is something to supplement and provide a source of really fresh and nutritious food… It increased the amount of vegetables that they [the participants of the program] had been eating from before,” says Penniman.
But aside from providing fresh produce, home gardening also comes with mental health benefits. Studies have shown that being in nature can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Especially during the pandemic, gardening has also provided many families like Braun’s a distraction and an activity to do together.
Danielle Nierenberg, president of the non-profit food justice research and advocacy organization Food Tank, points out that gardening as a family is also a great opportunity to teach children the value of food.
“They understand how hard it is to produce a tomato, or a pepper or another vegetable or fruit and they understand what it’s like if you waste something that you’ve grown, and all the hard work, labor, water and care that went into it,” says Nierenberg.
Many families who don’t have a backyard have chosen to grow their produce at community gardens. Soul Fire Farm has provided land in North Central Troy to accommodate a community garden. Ashley Helmholdt, an extension associate of Cornell’s Garden-Based Learning Program, which offers basic gardening classes throughout the state of New York, believes that the social benefits of gardening, especially community gardening in cities, could almost outweigh the food itself. It helps people build connections with their neighbors and creates community resiliency.
“We have not been interacting as much socially during the pandemic, and gardening is a safe and healthy way to get together with your community members,” says Helmholdt.
Nierenberg adds that it also helps build leadership, community assets, and accountability among youth of color.
“When people can grow their own food, they feel powerful, they feel like they can do other things,” says Nierenberg. “We want communities to feel empowered like they have control over their own lives and their own well-being.”
Nierenberg is not sure whether the demand for home gardening will continue to grow as we slowly come out of the pandemic. But she stresses that the most important thing is that we remember the lessons we learned about our food system during the pandemic.
“I hope that we learned resilience during this time and how to withstand some of these crises [in the future] whether [through] gardening or being a community activist or engaging in other ways,” says Nierenberg.
Hayley Zhao is the INN/Columbia Journalism School Intern with Next City for fall 2021. Zhao graduated from Columbia Journalism School in May 2021 with a focus on education and environmental reporting.