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Conn. Community Gardens Are At The Center Of COVID Relief — And Food Security

A community garden in New Haven
Photo courtesy Gather New Haven
A community garden in New Haven

Folly Delgado coordinates a garden outside of Clinton Avenue School in Fair Haven, Connecticut.

The pandemic has changed the relationship of how cityfolk like Delgado use their public spaces. Working from home has allowed some people more time to spend outside to explore their surroundings. These community gardens give outdoorsy people an outlet to help feed families who are out of work and food insecure.

“We’re constantly putting out communications and reaching out to people in the community, inviting them in and letting them know, yes this is your garden and it’s OK to come in,” Delgado said.

She participates in one of the city of New Haven’s 56 community gardens that have been around for decades. This will be Delgado’s sixth growing season at the garden, where she began volunteering as a way to help her grandson connect to his neighborhood.

“Particularly when the children show interest and the families come with the children sometimes, it’s just an opportunity, and this is kind of mind-blowing to me, for people to have the experience of the knowledge of where food really comes from,” she said.

Green thumbs

About five volunteers maintain the Clinton Avenue Garden, but anyone is allowed to harvest the food it produces. And the garden has been harvested by more people during the pandemic.

“And that is something that I think that we take for granted,” Delagdo said.

Brent Peterkin, director of Gather New Haven, a group that organizes the city’s community gardens, said some gardeners donate a percentage of their harvest to local food banks. However, many gardeners noticed that produce was being taken from their gardens.

“I use that word theft lightly,” Peterkin said. “It doesn’t necessarily describe the activity of someone going to a garden and removing vegetables for their personal or family’s consumption, as it is a community garden.”

Peterkin said some people are food insecure due to increased unemployment. Fear of economic shutdowns also heightened interest in having access to a garden that would always be open and safe to visit.

The pandemic has affected who was able to participate in community gardening, too.

Chris Ozyck, associate director of Urban Resources Initiative at Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, a community forestry organization, said gardens in underserved communities saw less participation than usual.

He said many gardens are maintained by seniors like Delgado. At her garden, Delgado saw that grandparents often had to assist their families with childcare, and the garden sometimes saw less volunteers.

Garden health is urban health

New Haven devotes about 16% of the city to park land. Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology and the Urban Resources Initiative (URI), said when URI began their work in the mid-1990s, the city had many more vacant lots in poor conditions. She said the supply of vacant lots has reduced significantly since then.

Ozyck said green space is not evenly distributed and access to parks remains to be difficult for low-income residents.

“Sometimes that place where they’re gonna interact with nature is on the vacant lot on their street, and maybe a sliver parcel,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just the streetscape, and sometimes it’s front yards.”

Urban agriculture has been found to have several health benefits, as well as environmental and economic incentives for a city. Peterkin said community gardening can help combat food apartheid – the unequal distribution of full-service grocery stores.

“We, in New Haven, had food deserts,” said Evan Trachten, from the city-run Livable City Initiative. “But we have shrunk them.”

Aside from serving as a supplemental food source, Peterkin said gardens cut carbon emissions, because people are able to walk to the garden for some of their groceries instead of driving across town.

“The other thing is pollination,” said Peterkin. “So we do have pollinators and plants and flowers at our gardens, and that creates a very healthy, productive environment for bees, which we need to live on this earth.”

By reducing paved area in cities, gardens reduce stormwater runoff and the dangerous “heat island” effect — where a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas. They can increase surrounding property values and help build economic corridors by increasing affordable housing and commercial development.

“By transforming those environments into productive spaces where we’re growing food and people are able to connect with their neighbors and build relationships, and families are able to connect and build relationships, in that sense, I think we are also addressing environmental issues,” said Peterkin. “But also the more green, the better. It’s going to mean improved air quality, but also it’s going to mean aesthetically it’s more attractive.”

Empty lots for lease

Trachten, of the Livable City Initiative, said his department maintains around 100 lots annually, and the city now sells off about a dozen lots a year. He said the city’s attitude towards vacant lots has shifted dramatically. About 15 years ago, there was a big push to sell small lots to the adjacent homeowners, and the city was even selling lots at $1 in order to liquidate more property. Today, the city sees vacant lots as a great resource of opportunity for housing and projects like parks and gardens, Trachten said.

Vacant lots in New Haven are concentrated around the Route 34 corridor and in the Newhallville neighborhood. Trachten said the city has pursued an aggressive foreclosure program in Newhallville over the past two decades.

After the 2008 housing crisis, foreclosures created a large number of vacant lots. Trachten said he does not expect a similar outcome after the COVID-19 pandemic due to greater protections for homeowners.

The city sells off vacant lots to groups like URI under short-term license agreements or lease agreements. The lots often remain owned by the city and protected from development while community groups maintain their gardens, but the city is able to reconvert these lots for building purposes. So far, this has not happened.

A hurdle for development and gardens has been soil contamination. Lead paint from old houses has seeped into the soil, making it unsafe to grow food. Gather New Haven has tried to solve this problem by building raised beds for the community gardeners. Larger projects like urban tree orchards would require more extensive remediation. Leaving these sites vacant would leave the soil toxic and often results in illegal dumping of trash and other contaminants.

A flourishing community

“People may come for one thing, but other things flourish,” said Trachten. “Our elected officials and stakeholders in the community, they typically come together around gardening, and it's something that unites us.”

In a city with a large transient population, he said it can be too easy to forget that there are people who have been gardening the same soil for over 20 years. The past year has shown gardeners that there are still many more who are rooted to their communities and want to have a hand in stewarding the land. These long-time residents will also be the ones to face the oncoming crisis of climate change. They hope that gardening may be a way to unite the language of hazard mitigation and sustainability with community values.

“Every year, we try to add something new,” said Delgado, the longtime community gardner. “Last year, we added Jerusalem artichokes, which we had never grown before, and they were such a big hit. And many of the families who tried them had never tried them before. So we were so happy with that and now we’ll have those forever.”