It’s interesting that just as Buffalo’s urban farming and gardening efforts were beginning to reap rewards, this city’s refugee population was on the rise. The resettling efforts and the gardening/farming efforts now work in tandem, as refugees have discovered that they are able to grow their own food in their own neighborhoods. Now that’s something that I don’t think anyone could have anticipated. But the stars were aligned, and efforts to alleviate food desserts soon took on a whole new meaning.
Refugees are typically perplexed when they walk into a local supermarket. Can you image? It’s a world full of foods that, for the most part, are depleted of nutrients. Giant companies push their latest and greatest products in your face, with forty different bags of chips, and ten kinds of ketchup? To many Americans it’s confusing, and can get expensive. Can you imagine being from a war torn country, trying to navigate aisles of unfamiliar products that don’t resemble real food?
In an effort to acclimate refugees to Buffalo (and America), resettling agencies are tasked with finding ways to make refugees feel more at home. For numerous refugees, growing their own food is not only a convenience, it’s a way of life. Thanks to efforts by organizations such as Grassroots Gardens, refugees are now able to grow their own foods and feed their families. Now that is something that is truly special and heartwarming – something that is very uniquely Buffalo.
Recently, Grassroots Gardens WNY (GGWNY) embarked upon an initiative called The Safe Roots for New Americans that would help the refugees to understand the safe growing practices in Buffalo. This was accomplished by hosting workshops and publishing books in eight different languages. The initiative was made possible with the help of the International Institute and Journey’s End Refugee Services. Another gardening initiative saw the building of two refugee-led community gardens, which was accomplished with the help of Jewish Family Services and HEAL International. Ultimately, the hope is that more neighborhood school and community gardens will become places that are familiar to refugees as places of planting and harvesting.
In a time where the benefit of refugee and immigrant populations is being called into question by some, gardens provide a mechanism through which cross-cultural knowledge-sharing and relationship building can take place in a shared public space.
In order to advance the mission, The Safe Roots for New Americans project was just awarded $25,000 by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. “Grassroots Gardens has seen involvement in community and school gardens act as an education and empowerment tool for refugees,” said GGWNY Executive Director Melissa Fratello. “Building on that observation, Safe Roots addresses personal health and nutrition, environmental justice, civic empowerment and cultural identity in one program. Furthermore, in a time where the benefit of refugee and immigrant populations is being called into question by some, gardens provide a mechanism through which cross-cultural knowledge-sharing and relationship building can take place in a shared public space.”
While it might seem fairly easy to pull off these efforts, it’s not. Issues include land contamination, land lease arrangements, plant species that are compatible with our climate… the list goes on. On the flip side, Buffalonians tending to community gardens are also being given advice on how to engage refugees – language and perceived cultural barriers can be particularly problematic.
Growing, cooking and sharing food is the universal sign of hospitality.
“Grassroots Gardens WNY has carved out a space for new Americans to plant the seeds of their native country within the fibers of this city they now call home,” says Olivia Gerhardt, Refugee Services Coordinator at the International Institute of Buffalo. “Growing, cooking and sharing food is the universal sign of hospitality. By providing pathways for our newest arrivals to cultivate their own food, we are empowering individuals to organically engage with their community.”
Currently, there are 103 GGWNY gardens. That’s a lot of potential beds to work with – most of the gardens are not used for farming practices. Identifying the appropriate gardens and breaking down the barriers are important. A number of organizations are pitching in to speed up the process, and funds will certainly help to grow the vision. Even Urban Roots Garden Center is getting involved. GGWNY and Urban Roots have identified more food producing plants that will be available at the garden center. That will help the refugees to be able to source the foods that they need by giving them a reliable garden destination that understands their needs.
Maybe down the road we can build a year round garden cooperative that will be available to all Buffalonians – something more than just a hoop house. More like a vast climate controlled greenhouse that would specialize in growing household plants, seedlings, etc. I bet that that would be a huge hit. It would also be a financially sustainable model, because there’s nothing else like it in the city proper.
If you would like to support Grassroots Gardens financially, you can contribute by clicking here. Your dollars will go towards purchasing additional derelict plots of land from the City of Buffalo.
Photo: Grassroots Gardens