Planting the Seeds of Community-Building Inspires Growth of Food Justice Movement Featured in MAD Summer 2012
Planting the Seeds of Community-Building Inspires Growth of Food Justice Movement
By Carmel Garvin Hearn
Have you ever sat on your grandmother's knee, watching her snap fresh beans that she picked out of her garden, or stopped by a roadside stand and picked out a delicious watermelon for your July 4th picnic? If so, you have enjoyed locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Although Georgia is an agriculture-rich state where farms and roadside produce stands are still a common sight, there are many people who may not have access to fresh, locally grown food. Barriers to access may include physical or developmental disabilities, lack of transportation, poverty or homelessness. To overcome these barriers, a statewide initiative has emerged from a national movement based on the concept of "food justice."
But what does the food justice movement actually mean? According to Robert Gottlieb & Anupama Joshi, authors of Food Justice (MIT Press), "Food advocates may work on several different issue areas, but share the common goal of challenging the injustices that exist throughout the dominant industrial and increasingly globalized food system. Food justice represents a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities."
The main focus of the movement is that it is not the food that is lacking in society, but the ability to fairly provide access to it for everyone, especially those with social and economic disparities.
The food justice movement has been happening across Georgia for some time, a trend that the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) is fully on board with through several projects within its Real Communities Initiative.
GCDD's Real Communities Initiative goal is to connect people with developmental disabilities and their organizations to other citizens and their associations to act collectively on community issues, while being guided by Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) principles and GCDD values to improve life in communities. The Real Communities Initiative helps build strong bridges to community associations, leaders and alliances that reach outside the boundaries of disability, so that a wider network benefits from the energy and gifts of people with developmental disabilities and their families.
GCDD's vision for participating in the food justice movement is to achieve healthy living for all Georgians by eliminating barriers that prevent people from having access to local foods. But results are also revealing this initiative is about much more than connecting people with fresh food. It's about bringing communities together.
Currently three out of the seven GCDD Real Communities Initiative projects across Georgia are promoting community engagement through increased access of healthy, fresh and local food in innovative ways.
In Savannah, a farmers' market was developed three years ago and now attracts hundreds of farmers, backyard gardeners, local restaurant buyers and happy customers from a 60-mile radius every week. A community garden in Macon is allowing people from a transitional neighborhood to come together and share their love for gardening and cooking with each other. And, the largely-immigrant City of Clarkston also recently started a community garden and a farmers' market to connect a diverse population representing many cultures and languages.
Each of these cities teamed up with GCDD through Real Communities to bring the food justice movement to life in interactive ways that reach the whole community, including those with developmental disabilities.
The Savannah Forsyth Farmers' Market
The Forsyth Farmers' Market, a project of Southeastern Green Network, Inc., is a producer-only market in Savannah's large downtown park. The northern end of the 30-acre park lies on the edge of the affluent Landmark Historic District, while the southern tip extends into the Victorian District, an area that declined with urban flight in the 1960s but is beginning to blossom again.
The market opened on the south side of the park in April 2009 and now operates every Saturday year-round. Local farmers offer a variety of freshly picked produce including free range meats, fresh pasta, homemade breads, yogurt, cheese, butter, milk, honey, sauces, baked goods, condiments, fresh flowers, unique plants, pastured eggs, fresh herbs, herbal teas and locally roasted coffee to enthusiastic crowds of shoppers.
"Produce can be purchased in grocery stores, but it's usually not locally grown," said Teri Schell, Forsyth Farmers' Market Real Communities Community Builder. "All of our vendors must grow, raise or cook all of their own food or products. We do not allow re-selling."
"This is our first time here," said Jessica Alshouse of Bryan County, attending with sons, nine-year-old Eli and six-year-old Emerson, who both have autism and Cerebral palsy. "It's easy bringing children with mobility impairments here. I normally try to buy fresh rather than canned or frozen. It's better for them and they love eating fresh food."
Alshouse's children were soon immersed in the market, planting vegetable seeds at the "Bring it Home" booth, under the instruction of Jonathan Harper. Children are encouraged to return each Saturday to see their seedlings mature and can eventually take them home to start their own backyard gardens. Harper is one of more than 20 community member volunteers, known as the Mixed Greens, which was developed as part of the Real Communities Initiative. As a volunteer, Harper helps the farmers' market's organizers plan welcoming activities and find meaningful roles in the organization for people with and without disabilities.
"I help kids plant beans and okra," said Mixed Greens' member Johnny Smith. "If I can, I come every Saturday. I don't like to eat fresh food but I love the Farmers' Market."
About seven of the group's members have disabilities, which really illustrates the Mixed Greens' broader focus on community-building.
"Despite the fact that fresh, healthy food is not necessarily Johnny's reason for getting involved, he is very involved," explained Schell. "What he enjoys is being around us, being around the community, working with the kids and taking care of the plants. I think those things are just as important as eating healthy."
Schell added that the Mixed Greens team is always looking for new people to get involved and is inclusive of all who are interested. Right now she needs an American Sign Language interpreter to help communicate with a market customer who has a hearing impairment.
"We just come up with ideas like the 'Bring it Home' booth or a kid's costume party for Earth Day," explained Paul Rockwell, another member of the Mixed Greens.
The Forsyth Farmers' Market also offers adult education, including a canning program, and operates under the nonprofit umbrella of the Southeastern Green Network, which also houses the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON). "When we opened the market, it was intentional that this would be a place where African American farmers could sell their produce," explained Schell.
"What most people don't realize is that this park used to be closed to African Americans. We intentionally involve people who were once excluded."
SAAFON involves a network of 121 farmers in six states and the Virgin Islands who grow organically certified or sustainable products. The Savannah-based SAAFON group was one of the founders of the Forsyth Farmers' Market and regularly operates a booth offering sales of watermelon juice from fruit produced by SAAFON farmers, with proceeds benefiting the organization.
"We are the organization that helps farmers get certification and stay in compliance," said Cynthia Hayes, SAAFON project coordinator." We provide any technical assistance they need to stay organic."
Schell's vision for the future of the Forsyth Farmers' Market is that more members of the community will turn out to help. She would also like to expand the educational component and add additional locations.
"I would like to see some satellite markets in Savannah in neighborhoods that don't have good access to fresh food, and in neighborhoods where people may not have
transportation to get here. If you buy a couple of bags of heavy vegetables, and have to walk a mile to the bus stop, it's a bit much for some folks."
Another way the Forsyth Market reduces disparities to healthy, local food is by accepting SNAP (United States Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp program) via EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards. Plus, through Wholesome Wave of Georgia, FFM is one of 14 Farmers' Markets across the State that doubles SNAP/ EBT dollars for purchases and makes it easier for lower income community members to access healthier and affordable food.
"Our mission is to make fresh, regionally grown produce easily accessible to all citizens of Savannah," added Schell.
The Centenary United Methodist Church in Macon
Beall's Hill was once a bustling residential district in downtown Macon, and Centenary United Methodist Church was a vital landmark in the flourishing neighborhood. But in the 1950s, residents began to drift to outlying neighborhoods, and by the 1990s, it was known as one of Macon's most dangerous areas. With dwindling attendance, Centenary faced the real possibility of closing its doors, and it became apparent that neither the neighborhood nor Centenary could survive without making significant changes.
In 2005, church members began a journey of committing themselves to diversity, openness, creativity, risk, patience and prayer to engage the community. These days, hope has been replanted in both the church and the neighborhood.
"With the help of GCDD, we started seeing how our work with Asset-Based Community Development could be more inclusive of persons with developmental disabilities," said Rev. Stacey Harwell, who serves as Minister of Community Building at Centenary and also as the GCDD Real Communities Community Builder. "We looked at the neighborhood and its assets. Does it have parks? Does somebody have the gift of cooking? Instead of asking them what we can do for them, we asked them what they could do for their community."
An initial option was to establish a co-op grocery store, but start-up costs were prohibitive and there was already a successful farmers' market in the downtown area. So, Harwell and a small group of volunteers settled upon the idea of making their community garden accessible for everyone to participate. GCDD provided funding to make the garden all-inclusive and offered finances for wheelchair-height raised beds and organic compost.
"When we formed the garden in 2009, we thought we had included everybody, but with GCDD's help in raising our awareness, we were able to make accessibility provisions such as adding the wheelchair height beds we would not have thought of," she explained.
"Just because you're homeless, lower income, have a disability or are otherwise isolated in the community, doesn't mean you can't have healthy nutritious food. The community garden is free. Anybody who works in it can
Harwell also coordinates a free breakfast offered by the church to the community every Sunday morning. She is working to incorporate the tenets of the food justice movement in that program to benefit local farmers and participants.
"We need to think locally and act globally," she stated. "We want to buy products that support local farmers and provide nutritious meals. Our standard menu has been grits, eggs, sausage, toast and coffee. But we recently switched to wheat bread and are beginning to offer local foods such as eggs and coffee."
The City of Clarkston
The City of Clarkston, though small with less than 8,000 residents and boasting only one square mile area, is known for its welcoming attitude and has become one of the most diverse cities in the nation with refugees and immigrants from more than 60 different nationalities who speak 26 different languages.
With so much diversity, GCDD saw a great opportunity to unite people with and without disabilities, as well as international refugees and American-born residents to come together as an inclusive, welcoming community through a Real Communities Initiative. Since hiring a Community Builder in Clarkston in November 2011, a great deal has taken place.
"I wanted to get people engaged and build relationships inside the Clarkston community," explained Basmat Ahmed, Clarkston's Real Communities Community Builder. Originally from Sudan, Ahmed moved to Egypt as a child and then immigrated with her family to the US and has lived in Clarkston for the past five years. "For the first six months I met with people – those with and without disabilities – to have fun and build relationships."
Through the initiative, Ahmed has helped develop a community garden in Clarkston in conjunction with the Global Growers Network that was planted for the first time in April 2012, on a centrally located plot provided by the county. There are gardeners of 10 different nationalities involved, some with and without disabilities, and each person or family has a small portion of the land to grow his or her own vegetables, flowers, herbs and more.
"Most have a farming background and still want to connect with the land," Ahmed observed. "They bring their family together, and it reminds them of their home and culture. Their friends will come and help and spend time around the garden, too." Ahmed works closely with GCDD and the Global Growers Network. The Global Growers Network works to create new agricultural opportunities in Georgia for international farmers who were forced to flee their homelands as refugees. The network uses a whole-systems approach to produce good food, train and place farmers and create economic opportunities for local communities in the Decatur-Clarkston-Stone Mountain area.
One of those opportunities was recently launched in Clarkston with a farmers' market open every Sunday during the growing season at the Clarkston Community Center.
"Vegetables in stores are not always fresh or organic," explained Ahmed. "This farmers' market opens up an opportunity for low income families to get fresh produce and provides a matching program for people with food stamps."
Although both of these projects are relatively new, Ahmed is working to involve more people from Clarkston's disability community and already sees positive results from her efforts.
"Our gardeners first thought about growing only," she remarked. "Now, they're developing leadership skills. Instead of just growing foods, they're coming up with ideas for helping people develop social skills."
"I believe everyone should have a full opportunity to have access to good food. What we have in the Clarkston area is part of food justice," concluded Ahmed. "We encourage everyone in the community to grow their own food and eat healthy and support gardeners as well. We all can eat healthy and lead better lives together."
The University of Georgia Offers Healthy Living Classes for Persons with Disabilities
One of every three adults in Georgia is obese. Another 37% are overweight, bringing the combined level of overweight and obesity in adults above 65%. The problem doesn't stop there. One of every three Georgia children is obese or overweight.
The University of Georgia reports that the related health consequences and costs of Georgia's obesity epidemic are equally staggering. Obesity increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, costing the State an estimated $2.4 billion annually – the equivalent of $250 per Georgian each year – in direct healthcare costs and lost productivity from disease, disability and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What is Georgia doing about obesity? According to the CDC, the State has piloted programs to improve healthy lifestyles at state-run parks and recreation facilities, churches and schools. Programs are underway to teach low income families how to prepare nutritious meals and grant funding is being provided to communities to pilot nutrition and physical activity programs.
But what about persons with physical or developmental disabilities? Is anything being done to help them improve their lifestyles? "People who are paralyzed are three to four times more likely to become diabetic," said University of Georgia researcher Kevin McCully, director of the Exercise Vascular Biology Laboratory in the College of Education's Department of Kinesiology.
This summer UGA has instituted a Healthy Living class for persons with physical disabilities and plans to expand the program to offer a class for persons with developmental disabilities in the fall.
"Our lab started by developing a wellness program for people with physical disabilities and spine injuries," said Hui-Ju (Zoe) Young, MS, a graduate student in UGA's kinesiology department. "After meeting with persons with developmental disabilities, we decided to plan another type of program for people with developmental disabilities for the fall."
Young and her research team have been meeting with Mia Nobbie, the daughter of Pat Nobbie, PhD, the GCDD deputy director, and other people with developmental disabilities this summer to get their input in designing the new program.
"Mia is fine with her situation," explained Nobbie. "She doesn't see her weight as a problem. I know it's a problem because it will lead to health issues. Getting her to stay with any program will be a challenge. Mia isn't going to do anything she does not like doing."
Nobbie has also been consulting with UGA program coordinators to help them understand how relationships must be built with persons who have developmental
"This can't be an intellectual exercise," she explained. "You have to go about it in a different way. If you want Mia to engage with you, you have to get to know
her in her space."
Young and her team have determined that the new class will focus on making exercise fun for people with developmental disabilities. It is also expected to provide a learning opportunity for UGA kinesiology students as they interact with people with disabilities and learn from them about their specific health issues, as well as about the barriers they face.
"The greatest part of the Fun Exercise class is that participants will also be teachers," said Young. "They will teach the UGA students about what disabilities are – what challenges they have. It will be a two-way education process."
Young's main goal with the class is to help people with developmental disabilities lose weight, but she understands that participants need to associate exercise with play in order for the class to be successful.
"They don't need to understand that they need to lose weight," she explained. "I am thinking about adding music to the exercise routine or using gymnastic
equipment to make it more fun for them."
There is no cost to participate in either the Healthy Living course for those with physical disabilities or in the Fun Exercise class for those with developmental disabilities. Both classes will be offered in the fall term, starting in mid-August, and are expected to continue indefinitely. Anyone who begins either program may remain involved as long as they like. New participants are encouraged to join as classes resume each term.