By Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, NOFA/Mass Food Access Coordinator
Home City Housing, Inc, a part of Housing Management Resources, provides low income housing to over 140 families in Springfield, MA. Two of their developments; Tapley Court Apartments and Twiggs I and II are nestled within the Mason Square Community, an area in Springfield that is made up of several neighborhoods (Old Hill, Upper Hill, Bay-Mcknight and a portion of Maple Six Corners). This section of the city is mostly Black and Brown and the families of these two housing sites represent the makeup of these neighborhoods.
In 2017, The Tapley Court Apartment Complex, one of the main Home City Housing sites, started a community garden for the families. Tapley Court is home to 40 families, mostly of low income. The Old Hill Bay area where it is located has a few small bodegas and a small store, but not a Stop and Shop, Shaw’s or Shoppers for families to purchase groceries. Instead, the nearest stores are a 20 to 30 minute bus ride to another part of the city. The families at Tapley Court wanted a place to grow some of their favorite foods and to shorten the drive/bus ride to the supermarket. With help from the local community garden coordinator (from the Springfield Food Policy Council) and a generous grant from a construction contractor, the Community Garden was started with great fanfare and a large party.
The youth leader program took over the caretaking of the garden with direction and assistance from the community garden coordinator. Fifteen youth leaders were employed through grants received by Home City Housing and they receive training in various areas such as cooking, assisting with reading programs, job development and writing. In 2017 the garden program was added as part of their training units. With guidance and direction of the Community Garden Coordinator, the youth leaders learned basic organic growing techniques and harvested over 1500 lbs. of food. All the food was distributed to the families of Tapley, Liberty and Twigs apartments. Family members from all the housing sites were excited to see favorites like Calabaza (a type of pumpkin), gandules (pigeon peas), collard greens and cilantro growing in the garden and then brought right to their doorstep. One resident mentioned “I was able to hold on to more of my SNAP benefits during the summer, because I could walk downstairs and see what was in the basket”. For the youth, it gave them the opportunity to provide a needed service and to connect more with their community.
Because of the hard work of the youth leaders and the excitement of the residents; in 2018 Home City Housing and NOFA/Mass partnered to offer more structured organic gardening training for the youth leaders to maximize the production from the garden. The Carbon/Organic Gardening Course featured presenters from NOFA/Mass, direct training from the Food Access Coordinator, Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, and attendance to the NOFA Summer Conference. Several youth leaders, who had never gardened before, were exposed to no-till farming, carbon proxy testing and cover cropping techniques. They were also able to do on site taste-testing of tomatoes, peppers and squash. For the first time, the youth leaders really could see where food comes from and how soil health is important to growing healthy, nutritious food.
The social benefits were even greater. During the courses and individual trainings, NOFA/Mass facilitated conversations with the youth around what it means to create self-determination around the type of food that is in the community. Youth Leaders began discussing how they could change some of the food landscape of their community and that as people of color they are not relegated to what is left for them to eat but that they can have a voice and make a change by simply growing food. One youth leader, Arianna, mentioned, “You know, I feel like a Food Hero when we bring food to the apartments”. She enjoyed eating many of the grape tomatoes growing in the garden.
In 2019, the partnership continued with 15 youth leaders and more of a focus on food justice. Speakers from Gardening the Community, a food justice organization engaged in youthdevelopment, urban agriculture and sustainable living to build healthy and equitable communities, and local urban farmers took the students on a journey into how the history of people of color and agriculture are intertwined. Several of the speakers stressed that
agriculture did not start with colonization or slavery; this is the skill and ancient knowledge that was brought with enslaved persons. The organic gardening, soil fertility and no-till education intensified, but this time with a focus on the historical knowledge from Dr. George Washington Carver, Dr. Booker T. Whately and some of the home-grown information from several resident gardeners. The year culminated with the youth leaders attending the Teen Summit at the NOFA Summer Conference with 2 of their peers participating on a panel with other youth leaders from the region.
At the start of 2020, at a youth event attended by Gardening The Community, Rachel’s Table and Youth Leaders from Home City Housing; several youth leaders expressed their desire to get the garden planning started. “When can we go outside and plant?” Brian Medina expressed. “I want to plant more ghost peppers and watermelons”, Josh yelled out to the staff, with a reply from Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, “we will get to work in March so think hard about what you want to eat!”
This is part 1 of a recurring article on the happenings at the Tapley Court Community Garden and the Youth Leaders/Gardeners. For more information concerning the NOFA/Mass Food Access Program and Community Gardens in Springfield, MA contact Anna Gilbert-Muhammad at 413-214-1237 or email firstname.lastname@example.org