By Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, NOFA/Mass Equity Director and Food Access Coordinator

After several weeks of physical distancing and sheltering in place, I started a research project for NOFA/Mass’s partners, Home City Housing.  We wanted to find out which families may be struggling with food insecurity due to not being able to get to the store, or not having enough money to shop.

Staff from both Home City Housing and Robinson Gardens Apartments (a part of the Springfield Housing Authority) started combing through their family listings to find out who was in need of food, while we at NOFA/Mass began searching to find farmers who accepted SNAP payments and could deliver fresh food to Springfield, MA.

This exercise (and virus) brought a few things to light in terms of the conditions of Black and Brown communities as it relates to food access.  Firstly, and I can use my own neighborhood as an example, as the total of confirmed cases of COVID-19 began to rise in Springfield, the most impacted areas were narrowed to 3 neighborhoods that have mostly Black and Brown families.  It could be said that these areas are experiencing a rise in the infections because they are not practicing social distancing. While that could be the case, a deeper dive into these neighborhoods reveals that these are the areas where the “frontline workers” live– those who work in grocery stores, drive public transportation, harvest food, work in group homes as aides, are police officers– basically these are the people who provide our essential services.

With public transportation reduced, and grocery stores changing their operations (only allowing a few patrons in at one time), purchasing food is not as easy for families from these impacted communities.

This is where the community gardens and backyard gardens become essential in this time.  We look forward to planting the garden at Tapley Court Apartments/Home City Housing and Robinson Gardens Apartments, not just as a community building exercise, but really as a means of feeding local families.  These gardens will give them greater access to food on their terms as well as create a barrier to food insecurity.

The most immediate challenges of this project are sourcing supplies, funding, and seeds/transplants.  At Home City Housing, with the youth leaders waiting for the “all clear” to go out in small groups to work with the garden, adult gardeners are willing to take up the slack planning for, and working in, the garden.  Growing their favorite foods and having them accessible eases the stress of feeding local families during these difficult times.

NOFA/Mass is committed to helping food-strapped families find a reliable source of food now and in the future.  In the short term, we are continuing to match families with farmers that have surplus food, will deliver to Springfield and take SNAP benefits as these gardens develop.  Working in partnership with communities of color to develop their renewable and reliable resources is a greater gift than one-time food donations.

For a list of supplies that our community garden project is in need of, read this accompanying article.

To see an example of how NOFA/Mass and Gardening the Community are working together to teach urban gardening techniques, check out this short YouTube video on how to make a milk crate garden.