Local movement grows to provide fresh veggies for all

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Photo by Jenny Dai.

During a recent chilly evening at the community garden next door to the Chabaso Bakery Factory at 360 James St., Georgina Catelan and Ladie Gomez are hard at work weeding and trimming crops. Meanwhile, their daughters, from toddler to preteen, run along rows of tomato and cilantro plants.

Regular participants in the Fair Haven Community Health Center’s Diabetes Prevention Program, or DPP, Catelan and Gomez come every week to work in the garden for two hours. Both women have been referred by the Health Center to participate in the program, which aims to identify people at risk for diabetes and provide them with the means to live a healthier lifestyle. All of the participants are low-income — Catelan and Gomez are both unemployed — and have less access to locally grown produce believed to be of healthier quality.

Five years ago, Chabaso planted vegetables in the lot for its employees, but in May 2010 it came under the management of DPP. Still, there was a higher demand for vegetables than one garden could produce.

In October 2010, Rebecca Kline, communications manager for Fair Haven Community Health Center and manager of the Chabaso garden, launched New Haven Farms to try to meet this need by acquiring — over the past year — three more garden spaces in previously empty lots in greater New Haven. Kline’s organization contributes to a broader effort in New Haven to make locally grown produce accessible across all incomes.

This focus on providing fresh produce to low income families has only increased since: the Fair Haven farmers’ market began accepting vouchers distributed by DPP in the last week of July.

Even as winter approaches, the garden work sessions at the New Haven Farms’ gardens continue as participants get ready to put up the greenhouse again. For these families, gardening at the New Haven Farms plot helps to prevent diabetes through providing necessary nutrients they might not have economic access to otherwise.

JOINING A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Through community-oriented programs such as DPP, what Yale Farm Manager Daniel MacPhee called a “growing constellation” of education and social service organizations is bringing together farmers, non-profits and city officials to help provide locally grown produce to those of lower incomes. With this community support, Kline has developed the capacity to accommodate more families, and raise awareness in the community about the issue.

In an October 2010 interview with the News, Kline said that she had a vision of expanding the community garden at Chabaso beyond that one plot, “so that everybody will be able to eat vegetables of this quality at least once a day.”

With help from New Haven’s Livable City Initiative, Kline procured three more plots of land on which to establish gardens. Through these community gardens, New Haven Farms and its supporters are able to help between 10 and 15 low-income families in Fair Haven adopt a healthier diet.

Kline received grants and donations of gardening materials from local organizations such as the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven and volunteers from the Global Health Corps. In July, New Haven Farms converted the lots to gardens.

Additional help came from the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which now pays for an intern, Vrinda Manglik FES ’13. She started this Labor Day to help New Haven Farms with event planning and grant writing.

“This was a way to share resources and help New Haven Farms stay connected to the University and for the Sustainable Food Project to be connected to things in New Haven,” Manglik said.

Two farms currently host workdays twice a week — the other two are still being developed — for these families to help with gardening tasks and then bring home vegetables such as tomatoes, celery and collard greens. Part of a healthy lifestyle, DPP Director Anne Camp said, includes spending time getting exercise outside.

Work sessions at the garden form a community amongst the participants as well. On Tuesday evening, when Gomez arrived, she and Catelan greeted each other warmly with cheek kisses while their daughters rushed to say hello to one another.

“Every Tuesday when I get out of school, my mom picks me up and takes me here” Catelan’s daughter said, adding that she enjoys helping out at the garden with her mother and would like to come work there with her brother when she is old enough.

INCREASED ACCESS

Usually, each family gets about five pounds of produce per work session, Kline said.

“With the vegetables from the garden, the food we cook is more natural and doesn’t have as much chemicals” said Gomez, a DPP participant who is unemployed and lives near Saint Raphael’s Hospital but rides to Fair Haven to work in the garden every Tuesday. Without the vegetables she grows in the gardens, Gomez would need to purchase them in the supermarket.

Also, for participants such as Catelan, some of these vegetables are brand new. A Mexican immigrant, she listed all the vegetables that had never been a part of her family’s diet: lettuce, carrots and celery — the only word she said in English, having learned it firsthand through the garden work, Kline said.

While Gomez has learned about produce through her work in the garden, not everyone in New Haven knows about the variety of fresh produce available locally. Sandra Caballero ’12, who interned with the Yale Sustainable Food Project last summer and worked the Yale Farm stand at the Wooster Square farmer’s market, said there was a disparity in education about different vegetables and their uses; between tour groups from different New Haven schools not all students could identify the various crops at the stand, she said.

Many adults also do not realize they have access to high quality, locally grown produce, Yale Farm manager MacPhee said.

“I think that recipients are just not aware of the fact they can now spend those dollars at farmers’ markets instead of in the grocery store,” MacPhee said.

New Haven Farms is just one way DPP helps provide access to fresh food, offering some of its patients vouchers for purchasing vegetables specifically at the farmers’ market in Fair Haven, rather than a grocery store or corner deli, before its season ended last week. The farmers at the Wooster Square Market — which first began operating under the new market umbrella nonprofit CitySeed in 2004 — were the first in the state to accept federally subsidized food stamps in 2005. Now, the Connecticut Mental Health Center Foundation and Healthy Eaters and Readers, a program CitySeed jointly operates with CT Children’s Museum, for example, provide vouchers to be used at local farmer’s markets as well.

Nicole Berube, executive director of CitySeed, which oversees five farmers’ markets in New Haven, said, “These vouchers can serve as an introduction to the markets and help people feel welcome to them.”

DPP gave out $1,000 dollars worth of vouchers in its first season, Kline said. Berube, pleased that these vouchers benefited not only the patients but also the local farmers, added that the business brought by the vouchers also stimulates the farmers’ markets.

“Programs like this have amazing reach to improve the health of individuals as well as increasing farm viability at the markets,” Berube said.

Vouchers to be used at the Fair Haven farmers’ market were distributed in $20 increments by DPP to participating families each week, she added.

With the onset of winter and the closing of Fair Haven farmers’ market for the year, work sessions at the Chabaso lot New Haven Farms greenhouse will need to help fill the gap in providing fresh produce for these lower-income families in order to help prevent diabetes. The organization hopes to obtain a greenhouse on a second lot to expand winter operations, Kline said.

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