Growing Food and Community
The thought of getting her hands dirty was more appealing than expected for Randi Robinson, a Dunbar High School junior and resident of DC’s Glenncrest development in SE. “I didn’t think I’d like it,” she explains, but she finds herself becoming more interested in gardening. Why? “We’re giving back to the community,” she explains while helping to plant a tree at the Glenncrest Tree Planting Day held in mid-April. The once vacant land owned by the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) at 49th and Benning Road SE had been drawing complaints at meetings of the Glenncrest Homeowners Association (GHA).
On this sunny Saturday more than 60 residents are helping to plant 19 trees, including 10 fruit-bearing ones. A farmer’s market will be held regularly on the site. As the garden develops, the young people will grow sunflower seeds to sell, learning lessons in entrepreneurship.
Community gardens are becoming a greater presence East of the River (EOTR). Michael Toland from the nearby Benning Terrace Apartments (BTA) is helping out at the tree-planting. Toland, who coaches the Benning Terrace Soldiers, a Pop Warner football team, is involved with BTA’s new garden. “We took some children to Lincoln Heights to help with their planting too,” Toland says. Also present today is Dennis Chestnut of Groundwork Anacostia, who helped to get the garden project off the ground thanks to a call from Curtis Watkins of Make a Difference House.
Groundwork Anacostia (GA) helps communities EOTR by refurbishing vacant lots (brownfields) and keeping the Anacostia River free of litter. GA is not involved with every community garden EOTR. But Chestnut recognizes the power of community gardens to fulfill Groundwork’s mission of “changing places, changing lives.”
Other community garden projects that GA aids include the Mayfair Community Gardens, located at the apartment complex by the Minnesota Avenue Metro station; the Deanwood Learning Garden by Sheriff Road and 48th St. NE; and the People’s Cooperative Community Garden on Elvans Road SE.
Growing Civic Engagement
The gardens are putting once unused land to productive use by growing fruits and vegetables, which are particularly desirable EOTR with its many food deserts. But there is another important benefit. “The idea is to improve the life of the residents,” asserts Chestnut, by getting them engaged.
GA’s role in working with the residents whose communities have gardens is not to micro-manage their decision-making. The communities decide what they want to plant, how they want their gardens to look, and what features they should have. The residents do most of the gardening. Chestnut’s skill is dealing with the Byzantine network of government and nonprofit agencies whose support is essential to start and maintain community gardens.
Watkins, director of the National Homecomers Academy, which operates the Make a Difference House that serves Glenncrest’s young residents, knew of the concern about the vacant lot on Benning Road. Chestnut was someone who could help to deal with the DCHA, which owned the land. Once DCHA gave permission for its use as a garden, Chestnut wrote a proposal seeking assistance from Casey Trees, a nonprofit organization that promotes planting trees in DC due to their beneficial environmental impact. (Chestnut is a board member of Casey Trees.) Ron Rogers, newly elected board member of the GHA, is pleased to see Glenncresters of all ages helping to plant trees and hopes that the garden will encourage the young to take greater pride in their community.
At Mayfair Mansions the community garden is a half-acre site located toward the back of the complex by the community center. Thanks to Sonya Hochevar, who was then the community partnerships coordinator for the management company that administers Mayfair, things started to happen. “What people don’t understand is that there is a lot of process between the hatching of an idea and the actual garden,” explains Chestnut. “She was an important link between the management company, the resident council, and Groundwork to make sure everything moved forward.” All kinds of meetings had to occur, requirements had to be met, and forms had to be filled out and submitted and approved. One condition set by historical preservationists was to have the garden cordoned off by a fence that matches the one surrounding Mayfair.
Thanks to a US Department of Agriculture grant obtained through the University of the District of Columbia, funding was obtained for the garden. The garden started to operate in 2011. It consists of 17 beds for vegetables ranging from cucumbers to zucchini. Plans call for erecting hoop houses in the fall so crops can continue to be grown during the colder months. Fruit trees will also be planted.
One Sunday in early April, Chestnut is working at the Mayfair Mansions Community Garden when Brenda Jacobs, a resident, strolls by. “I’m just getting home from church," she announces. Soon she is telling Chestnut how last year their garden grew everything from butternut lettuce and squash to zucchini. Chestnut helped arrange for Healthy Living, a nonprofit promoting healthier eathing, to show residents how to prepare the garden’s produce. “I didn’t even know you could cook radishes,” Jacobs says. Now she knows how sauteeing asparagus and radishes can turn vegetables whose taste she disliked raw into appetizing fare.
But relationships are also cultivated. John Pinkney of Public Allies, a public service organization affiliated with Americoprs, says one important benefit of the community garden is that “it provides Mayfair Mansions with an opportunity to bridge the gap between the ages.” When families come to the center the children, parents, and grandparents tend to pair up with their peers. With the garden families can do something “together.”
Jacobs agrees. “We do have a good time in there,” she says, referring to the garden. Before, says Jacobs, a 16-year resident of Mayfair Mansions, young children largely ignored the elderly residents they did not know. That has changed. Children are more respectful of their elders. “Once the little people see us in the garden they want to come and help us out,” she says. “Now, they ask us when we are going into the garden.” When children see the crops they learn that they can grow plants such as tomatoes in their own home year round. It is one more way to encourage them to eat healthier.
Not all of Mayfair Mansion’s older residents can work in the garden. Jacobs makes sure to pick fresh produce on Tuesdays and Thursdays before the Senior Cafe to distribute to less active older residents. Robert K. Johns, the current community partnerships director, notes that many older residents see the garden as a reason to go outside and work. “That contributes to their health and wellness.” Another benefit, stresses Johns, is that the garden instills pride in the community. “Now, when people come to visit Mayfair, people say, “We have the Mayfair Garden.”
Chestnut says the community gardens EOTR are producing much more than fruits and vegetables. Seeds for better communities are being planted too.