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Seeding the Desert: Homewood farm project fighting against food insecurity

 

By Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
info@pittsburghcurrent.com

Tucked away on Monticello street in the historic Homewood neighborhood there sits a farm.

Not one that matches up with the traditional images conjured in the nursery rhymes most remember, but one that if the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Co-op has its way, will grow a healthier community along with fruits and vegetables.

It started with an idea in 2011 in the Hill District to teach neighborhood children to garden and grow their own food founder and executive director Raqueeb Bey explains. More than that, the program was meant to teach them about African culture and sustainability. The group would call itself Mama Africa’s Green Scouts. Over time, the group grew and adults who wanted their children, or who wanted to garden themselves, became interested. 

Despite the group’s success, though, Bey noticed a problem.

“I was noticing that in primarily African-American communities, there were no people who looked like us doing this work and leading it or teaching our children; they were being taught by non-African-Americans,” she says. 

Bey went to meeting after meeting where she was the only or one of few, people of color in the room. Although she was happy with the success of the inaugural program as it spread to other parts of the city, she believed the people who lived in areas such as the Hill District and Homewood needed to take the lead. 

“Our people need to see us doing this,” Bey says. “Pittsburgh has a majority of caucasian residents; even in schools they have white gardening education so they’re usually not seeing us doing this work in the community.”

Officially established in 2015 and based in Homewood, the BUGS co-op has grown into an organization grounded in social justice with a vision for a sustainable and self-sufficient future. Although for some people Homewood might not be the place that immediately comes to mind when you think of farming, for BUGS there was no better place to set up shop.

As of 2017 an estimated one in five Pittsburgh residents struggles with food insecurity, meaning being unable to obtain a sufficient amount of healthy food daily. Homewood has long been classified as a food desert, which is why the BUGS Co-Op chose it.

“We can’t always wait for people to help us, we decided to work in the Homewood area because it’s a food apartheid area,” Bey explained. “We say apartheid because of food deserts, because it’s systematic racism. There hasn’t been a grocery store here since the mid-1990s.”

Last year the co-op acquired a vacant lot, thanks to the city’s Adopt-a-Lot program, which now grows lettuce, tomatoes, basil and other vegetables in addition to hosting workshops on gardening and nutrition. 

Although the co-op is still modest with roughly 25 members, it has big plans for the future. Among them is working to give Homewood residents options aside from convenience stores for food. 

In the Fall, the co-op will launch a weekly farm stand for residents. Additionally, as soon as 2021, or as late as 2022, there are plans to open a resident-run grocery store. 

While teaching about sustainability, nutrition, and maintaining gardens is an important part of the co-op’s mission, the members would also like the co-op to be a place of healing for members of the community. 

Through the years the Homewood area has had its ups and downs. After an instance of violence, where young people were involved, left the community shaken, Dana Harris-Yates, operations manager for the co-op, felt the farm could be used to help residents work through a number of mental health issues. 

“We began to discuss trauma in our community and how to effectively integrate growing food and healing PTSD and trauma,” Harris-Yates says. “So as a natural doctor what I decided to do was create a program that would bring the children out of their minds and take them into a space of healing.”

Harris-Yates, who holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology decided the best course of action would be sectioning off a part of the farm specifically for healing. A “healing garden” to be exact.

“The whole approach is a cultural-based approach to helping young people deal with trauma, PTSD, stress and … other labels that children are given in the school system that place them at-risk,” Harris-Yates says. Among the ways she plans to help young people in the area deal with trauma, is through yoga, meditation, and growing healing herbs among other things.

For both Harris-Yates and Bey, who happen to be cousins, farming has a significant history for them personally and for the African-American community. Both shared memories of gardening with their families as children, but beyond their own experiences, they both stressed the importance of understanding that gardening and farming had a deep, rich history that needed to be shared with the next generation. 

“We’re just carrying on that tradition and honoring it and teaching the youth that farming for us [African Americans] does not just have a history with slavery, it has a connection with the world history and world agriculture,” Harris-Yates says. Bey adds that down the line another method of fostering healing will be a program that would allow formerly incarcerated women to reunite with their children.

“We’re working with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, developing a workforce female re-entry program,” Bey says.

The program will work in conjunction with the healing garden and focus on reuniting formerly incarcerated women with their children. Bey and Harris-Yates expect the program to launch next year.

What started with a few garden beds in the Hill District has grown to include several partnerships, the farm, a beehive and if co-op members have their way so much more. The Black Urban Gardener and Farmers of Pittsburgh plans to keep growing through a community-based approach. For Bey, it will always remain important that residents of neighborhoods lead the charge in creating a sustainable future. 

“We’re a work in progress,” Bey says. “ We did this work for a couple of reasons, but it was mostly to make sure we had a voice at the table.”

 

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