AAs a young girl in Mississippi, Demalda Newsome once found sweet potatoes sprouting outside. Excited about her discovery, she presented them to her grandmother, who angrily ordered the root vegetables from her house. People should only eat things off the ground out of poverty, said her grandmother.
Now, as a 59-year-old grandmother, Newsome still hears that view as she campaigns to tackle food insecurity in the low-income neighborhood of northern Tulsa, Oklahoma. The state is among the worst in the US for national fruit and vegetable consumption and has one of the lower average national hourly wages: $ 7.25 (£ 5.53).
“We started various school garden initiatives, but they only resulted in racial segregation,” Newsome explains as he drove down a deserted North Tulsa avenue on a hot morning. “The black teachers didn’t want that. Black women have moved so far away from gardening and for them it is like being brought back into slavery. I’ve never felt this way If you want something, if you want to eat better, then you better eat. “
But feeding yourself can be tricky in this neighborhood. Tulsa, a city of almost 400,000 people, is considered to be one of the worst food deserts in the country (places with officially “little access” to supermarkets). Only 7% of the population should be able to go to a grocery store within five minutes.
The typical household income in northern Tulsa is around $ 20,000 and lower in Turley, a community on the northernmost edge of the city. It’s not uncommon for families here to find it difficult to get healthy – or just enough – groceries from a full-service grocery store across northern Tulsa. Other people unable to pay previous renters’ outstanding water or electricity bills live with these basic amenities turned off and therefore unable to cook.
Demalda Newsome on her farm in North Tulsa. Photo: Amy Lieberman
The trend towards “urban gardening”, which has developed from Asia to Europe in the form of community gardens and roof gardens, is viewed by some experts as a partial solution to food insecurity in the USA. In theory, local gardens can help people with low incomes and limited or insecure access to nutritious food to obtain reliable sources of produce. However, in Tulsa and nearby Oklahoma City, gardening initiatives like the Newsomes are struggling to overcome the immediacy of people’s hunger, as well as the complex racial history and financial constraints that separate this southwestern state.
Newsome and her husband are longtime black farming pioneers in Tulsa. Her organization, Newsome Community Farms, opened their farmer’s market in 1999, employing 10 young people on grants at a time to work on their five-acre farm. The Newsomes’ focus has always been on training more gardeners and farmers, and Demalda is still working with a group of Hmong immigrants. Community gardening on their farm has decreased in the past three years, but they still plan to sell vegetables and honey at market prices in their front yard this fall.
Racism is not open. But you see another place where you can get white money and what else can you think of? Demalda Newsome
According to Demalda Newsome, sharp racial segregation in Tulsa goes beyond maps, which tend to coincide with food deserts (like in the US). The city’s legacy is still weighed down by the Tulsa race riots of 1921, which burned an affluent black neighborhood and killed about 300 people. “There is a lot of talk about the talks here – but there is no solution, no problem-solving,” she says.
Despite working closely with two other Tulsa initiatives, Newsome sees few opportunities for her as a black woman. “Racism is not open. Nobody says: “I won’t give you the money, I won’t trust you with the money” – but then you see another place where the money runs, and what else can you think? “
Wounded prisoners are hospitalized after the riots in Tulsa. Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Newsome believes it is easier to tackle food insecurity at the national level – she sits on the boards of several food organizations – than locally, where “people don’t bring up what’s going on”. She believes this is due in part to a lack of community participation in food insecurity forums.
Other black urban gardeners in Oklahoma share these feelings of exclusion. Bryan Wright, a teacher, started an urban gardening project in Oklahoma City last year after discovering he was the only black person at a sustainability conference.
Wright uses holistic permaculture principles in his work with Bugs, the Black Urban Gardening Society (in contrast to the New York network of the same name). On a hot day, only two families and a middle school student brave the 38 ° C weather for a get together, but 40 people are known to be in attendance, he says.
“We have this history of farm labor. So when I have kids out here, the first thing they’ll say is,” Man, we slaves, “” Wright says. “They’re joking about it, but you have to reach out to the kids. We are faced with great food insecurity so having a point of sale where we can harvest food is extremely beneficial. ”
Despite its food deserts, Oklahoma was once a nationally competitive agricultural producer. Almost every native Oklahoma native has previously farmed or knows someone who has, says Ron Robinson, director of the Third Place community center, which runs a pantry and community garden in Turley on a weekly basis. Third Place planted the garden, which is now in its second year of production after buying and razing a row of rundown homes for $ 12,000.
Turley Gardens, operated by Third Place Community Center. Photo: Amy Lieberman
Well-known Turley residents can wander into the garden in shopping carts to pick peaches or get a free breakfast on the weekend. But food fears prevail: According to a 2013 Oklahoma University study, more than half of third-place pantry shoppers showed poor food security and said they were afraid they would have enough to eat.
“Most people used to have good food, and the elderly will have that in their history,” says Bonnie Ashing, a garden volunteer who is married to Robinson. “But the younger people don’t remember it at all.”
According to Ashing, the use of Third Place’s community garden is still fraught with doubts and lack of knowledge among potential users. “People expressed fear, ‘What if someone picks my food? Aren’t you locking your garden? ‘Or some people want to pick the products all at once before they are ripe. “
Claudette Schexnider, 54, remembers eating sliced cucumbers and cherry tomatoes who grew up on her family’s farm outside Oklahoma City. Now her grocery budget limits her weekly shopping to “the basics” like eggs and toast. Once a month she receives free groceries from the pantry in third place.
After two heart attacks, Schexnider does not have the physical ability to consider gardening. She wants another grocery store that is cheaper and better quality than the only one in North Tulsa that currently has a small supply of fresh groceries in stock.
“Urban agriculture is part of many larger problems such as structural inequality, pollution, health problems and investments in these communities,” said Laura Lawson, dean of the Department of Agriculture and Urban Programs at Rutgers University. “People can get involved in the community, and that’s a really great thing, but it won’t solve the bigger community problems that shape the food wasteland problem.”
Oklahoma Bugs Group hopes to one day create an urban forest that will provide year-round groceries. Photo: Amy Lieberman
In Tulsa, eating healthy is simply no longer part of the general culture, while urban gardening is seen as a “little white trending fix” according to Justin Pickard, director of Crossover Community Impact. This local Christian community development organization plants fruit trees in Tulsa residents’ gardens and along a highway. They may be easier to maintain than an urban farm.
Meanwhile, Wright, founder of Bugs in Oklahoma City, hopes to grow a year-round, year-round “urban forest” so that the community garden won’t be limited to a few months a year. Unfortunately his organization works with practically no budget; a common situation in Oklahoma. The energy-rich state has a financially troubled state government, but Oklahoma’s Republican leadership is even impacting organizations like the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, which feeds 116,000 Oklahomans a week but is forced to go its own way without public support.
“The [state] The government doesn’t think it’s their responsibility to help people, but there are plenty of good people doing good things, ”said Katie Plohocky, co-founder of Tulsa-based mobile grocery store R&G Family Grocers. “Without that we would be in big trouble.”
Newsome says she and her husband are considering leaving Tulsa, perhaps to go to Philadelphia to be with their son, who also works in community horticulture. “I didn’t believe it until I was there: in low-income areas, there are gardens on every corner and you don’t have to talk people into it. You have elders, young people, everyone is just coming out. ”
By comparison, Newsome worries about the future of Oklahoma – especially if “band-aids” like Ron Robinson’s Third Place community center go away. She and her husband are disappointed and disillusioned with the financing reality they continue to face. But at least for the moment the work goes on and it goes on every day.
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