photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Gardens of Eden

Passing by several farmers markets in Minnesota last week I was happy to see the looks of anticipation on the faces of the shoppers as they imagined the fresh green salads, bowls of summer squash, and desserts made from the season’s first strawberries that would accompany their holiday cookouts. But not so long ago the scene also would have been tinged with sadness, as I thought about the thousands of families living in poverty who had little access to fresh produce – which impacts their nutrition and health.

In the past few years, though, a movement has taken hold in this country that provides a variety of “home grown” fruits and vegetables to those who would otherwise be unable to afford them. These are urban community gardens, most often empty lots that spirited and innovative community leaders turn into verdant tracts that are not only aesthetically pleasing, they also provide food to the community, empower local people, and provide witness to the creation of a just food system.

Detroit may seem far away from the farmlands of Minnesota, yet it is home to hundreds of urban gardens. These are not the upscale farmers markets that grace cities like New York and Washington, DC, with their heirloom tomatoes and artisanal products. Detroit’s urban gardens are there because people are hungry. According to an article by Ben Ehrenreich in The Nation, “Detroit’s Social Forum: Hope in Crisis”, “there is no longer a single major grocery store within the bounds of metropolitan Detroit, and only about a fifth of Detroiters have access to a car that might carry them to a suburban Trader Joes’.”

The Earthworks Urban Farm is one of the most successful in Detroit. In 1997, a Capuchin brother of the Province of St. Joseph in Detroit started a garden at his workplace, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. The kitchen serves 2,000 meals per day to the poor who lack basic human needs. That small plot of land grew into the Earthworks Urban Farm project, an exercise in social justice and a means of restoring respectful relationships between individuals with the land and food it produces. Each year, farm volunteers pick hundreds of pounds of grapes, gooseberries, black and red raspberries, elderberries, and currants that are turned into jam and sold at local farmers markets and area stores. Earthworks also brings their produce to Detroit’s community health centers, which makes it easy for clients to use Project FRESH coupons by bringing the produce to the clinic where the coupons are distributed. Project FRESH is a program that makes fresh produce available to low-income, nutritionally-at-risk consumers.

There are thousands of these stories all across the country. We would like to hear about yours, and any other innovative programs that are fighting hunger in America. These, I believe, are the Gardens of Eden of our time.