Disseminating knowledge of food

PHOENIX (AP) – Community garden coordinator Bruce Babcock only has to walk across the street to get to the 10-acre patch of farmland where he labours to feed his community.

Working with volunteer growers and food enthusiasts, they provide freshly grown produce every week for low-income Phoenix residents with little to no access to nutritional food.

The Spaces of Opportunity neighbourhood food system follows other United States (US) communities like Oakland, California, Detroit and Chicago where urban gardens improve food options in racially and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security said as of October, more than 900,000 people had applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, formerly known as food stamps.

Spaces of Opportunity works with the Roosevelt School District, the Orchard Community Learning Center, Unlimited Potential, the Tiger Foundation and the Desert Botanical Garden to produce and improve access through farmers markets and distribution programmes.

It is located in Southern Phoenix, a Latino and Black community that public health officials marked as “food deserts” due to limited access to fresh and healthy food.

The US Department of Agriculture’s map shows such food deserts are widespread throughout Arizona and other parts of the Southwest. The people are dependent on fast and unhealthy food, making them vulnerable to diet-linked health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

Babcock began volunteering in 2015, owning a quarter-acre plot after he experimented with a backyard aquaponics project.

Volunteers at Roosevelt School District prepare vegetarian burritos for low income recipients. PHOTOS: AP
Spaces of Opportunity farmland
Matthew Forest shops for low-cost produce in a Farm Express bus

Babcock said growers start out paying USD5 a month for a quarter-acre and can later expand to a full acre plot. Starting with 60 gardeners, 200 have worked under Babcock since 2015.

“We really slowed down over the summer and I was worried it wasn’t going to pick back up because of COVID-19,” Babcock said. But people returned in the fall when the triple-digit temperatures dropped and he opened up more land for gardeners.

Director of the Orchard Community Learning Centre John Wann-Angeles and former principal in the Roosevelt School District, Wann-Angeles said his interest comes from experience working with children, educating them towards a better future for their community. At the school, he and some volunteers wrapped and delivered vegetarian burritos as well as bags of seasonal produce to 175 low income earners every Thursday.

Recipients included residents of Justa Centre, which provides shelter, food and job services to homeless people over 55. Justa Centre Executive Director Wendy Johnson said the fresh produce from Spaces of Opportunity, “are a treat among our residents”.

“The strawberries are a favourite. The oranges are gone in minutes,” said Johnson, noting that residents are used to getting canned foods. “Food is a privileged item when you are poor.”

The farmland is also where former Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) athlete, coach and executive Bridget Pettis operates Project Roots Arizona.

A group she founded after retirement, it offers free seasonal produce bags to residents in Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale and Glendale; sells garden boxes for home-grown produce; cooks soup for homeless people and sells vegetables at farmers markets.

“There is a lack of access, but it’s a lack of knowledge and education about food in these areas that we are trying to address,” Pettis said. “That’s what Project Roots wanted to bring — the knowledge of food.”

The International Rescue Committee, a leading resettlement agency for refugees fleeing war and persecution, has a similar programme called New Roots for refugees.

New arrivals from countries such as Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan are given lots, seeds and guidance to grow crops such as tomatoes and watermelon to sell or add fresh, healthy options to their own family meals.

Farm Express, another fresh food initiative, has taken a more accessible approach, converting a 40-foot city bus and a smaller shuttle into mobile markets selling fruits and vegetables at cost in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

“We’re trying to make sure working class families have the same access to the kind of produce the restaurants get, that are sold at farmer’s markets,” said Executive Director of Activate Food Arizona Elyse Guidas, that runs Farm Express.

Buying the produce wholesale, they charge the same prices to shoppers. Shoppers can utilise government nutrition benefits and obtain more produce for free through a programme funded by a local grant.

Matthew Forest, 32, said he was delighted by the low prices at a stop Farm Express made next to a public housing project south of downtown Phoenix.

It was the first time he and his girlfriend, Eboni Davis, 33, bought anything from the brightly painted former city bus. The closest grocery story is a one-and-a-mile walk,and they don’t own a car.

“This has been a real experience,” said Forest after the couple spent less than USD14 for bananas, oranges, collard greens, grapefruit, butternut squash, green apple, red onion, strawberries and potatoes.

“This is a lot less expensive than the supermarket,” Forest said before wheeling the produce home in a metal cart.