New Haven’s urban farmers work to make the city’s public gardens a source of empowerment and an answer to food insecurity.
The garden had been used as a dumping ground. Raised beds strangled by overgrown weeds, trash strewn about, wet slabs of mushroom-speckled wood perfuming the area with a mildewy odor. It was our job—myself and a crew of New Haven residents—to revitalize this less-than-one-acre plot on Adeline Street, run by Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS). It was March of 2021, and the weather was unseasonably warm. I spent hours pruning tree branches with a saw to let crops catch sunlight; shoveling hot woodchips into wheelbarrows; yanking weeds from the soil, then depositing them into a white bucket. Occasionally I’d find a used Band-Aid or the plastic lining of a Doritos bag, a reminder that I was not in a pastoral countryside but in New Haven, that I was flanked not by farms and forests but by tire shops and gas stations. Even during the rehabilitation process, though, on a street lined with blue-grey houses, the garden was a welcome patch of green.
Karen Grossi has spent her life tending to such patches of green. She started gardening at age four, and for a few years worked as a small-scale organic farmer in Holyoke, MA.
During the pandemic, while volunteering as a food delivery driver for the Semilla Collective (an organization that distributes food among Latinx New Haveners), Grossi watched community hunger escalate in real time. She knew she could be doing more. In March of 2020, Grossi and a group of acquaintances began planting crops in unused garden plots across the city, including the Adeline Street garden. The “ad hoc group,” as Grossi calls it—believing the term “organization” too official for the rotating cabal of five to twelve gardeners—took on the moniker Mutual Aid Growers.
Some of the empty garden spaces were abandoned because of the pandemic; others, like the Adeline Street garden, were in complete disarray. Volunteers also grew in their personal gardens; Tina Dodge, another leader of the organization, built two new beds in her backyard to accommodate extra seedlings. Over the course of the summer of 2020, Mutual Aid Growers grew more than 500 pounds of produce, all of which went to hungry New Haven families.
Mutual Aid Growers is not the only New Haven organization using horticulture to fight hunger. With well over fifty community gardens, New Haven has one of the highest rates of community gardens per capita of any city in the United States. Most of these gardens are run by Gather New Haven. Eliza Caldwell, the community garden manager for Gather, explained to me, “The goal is to get food close to people’s houses, so they don’t have to go somewhere and get it.”
But when the pandemic hit, Gather was caught off guard. The group had only formed two months before mass closures and quarantine, through a merger of the New Haven Land Trust and New Haven Farms in January 2020. Its staff was mostly new and therefore unprepared for the administrative nightmare of COVID-19. “There was so much change at that time that it feels like we were just trying to navigate how to do things,” Caldwell said. “And I feel pretty bad saying that because, we should [have] been, I don’t know, more active, I suppose.”
However, Gather was certainly not inactive during the early pandemic. Individual gardeners like Mary-Ann Moran took it upon themselves to improve food accessibility in their local communities. Moran, who serves as the community garden manager for the gardens in Fair Haven, on the city’s east side, has worked throughout the pandemic to make fresh produce available in libraries, substations, and schools across her community—free of charge, available to be picked up by anyone in need.
Still, it’s easy to understand why Caldwell felt that Gather should have done more: after national hunger rates reached a twenty-year low in 2019, they spiked in 2020. In New Haven, food insecurity rates hit 16.2 percent, the highest of any county in Connecticut, marking a 33.5 percent increase since 2018. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated an existing hunger crisis in New Haven, as rising rates of poverty and unemployment resulted in smaller portions and more skipped meals.
To Grossi, although charities like Gather have a necessary role to play in fighting the crisis of food insecurity, mutual aid often has advantages over these more bureaucratic organizations. “Mutual aid is folks who are experiencing the unmet need working together to get those needs met,” she said. “[Charities] are constrained by red tape and bureaucracies”—to get food from charities, a person often needs to fill out federally mandated paperwork and supply an ID. “It’s also very demoralizing to be on that end of having to prove that you both need this food and that you’re worthy of it.”
Yet, without larger organizations like the Semilla Collective, which had the infrastructure necessary for distribution, Mutual Aid Growers would have had difficulty delivering their produce. As well, charities like Gather and IRIS provided Mutual Aid Growers with the necessary garden space for their seedlings. These organizations—both mutual aid and charity—work best when they work together.
In the future, Grossi, Dodge, and the rest of their team hope to continue providing food for those in need in New Haven. However, there are currently limits to how much this group can provide. Dodge told me, “Our group is small. We need a lot more volunteers. We need donations of seedlings, which we’ve been pretty lucky getting. But we could also use fertilizer. We could also use tomato cages.” Mutual Aid Growers has recently established a GoFundMe to bolster their network and funding. At the moment, most expenses come out of the pockets of volunteers. And a larger network means more backyards, more gardens, and more produce.
Of course, it is difficult to provide food for entire communities on single acre plots that do not survive the winter. But the gardens are a start. They are food sources, yes, but they are also a source of recreation, empowerment, stress relief, community bonding, and the opportunity to reclaim dominion over our diets from a corporate food system. And while walking through a neighborhood lined with grey sidewalks and chain link fences, it’s a nice break to stare into these gardens, watching tomatoes climb up a green stem.