I approached Canary Girardeau, the woman who had gaveled the meeting closed, and presented myself as a Master Gardener from the other side of the city, hoping to learn a little about that gardening project. Girardeau took my arm and suddenly I was being introduced to the assembled audience as someone who had a special message about gardening to share. How could I refuse? So I proceded to give an impromptu presentation on why I thought it was important for Ward 8, a traditionally underserved area of the city on the far side of the Anacostia River, to have more food gardening.
Growing your own food is not only healthful, it is incredibly thrifty. Imagine feeding yourself and your family for the cost of a few seed packets. Ward 8 simply does not have enough public food gardens. But as I would learn, there are plans afoot to change that.
It turns out that Ms. Girardeau had simply forgotten about the garden segment and closed the meeting too soon. After I finished lauding the virtues of growing one’s own food, she introduced me to Yvette Muhammad, a Ward 7 resident who has been gathering gardening information for the obesity collaborative and its partner, Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc. (SHIRE), in preparation of launching some kind of program. And here my day took another strange turn. Muhammad and I instantly recognized each other: she was a student in a composting class I taught two years ago. Now she is training to be a Master Gardener. We caught up and started to talk about bringing more gardens to Ward 8. I wondered if she thought there was any way that experienced gardeners from the northwestern quadrant of the city might be able to help.
The reason I find all of this fascinating enough to write about is because we in the more affluent parts of the District of Columbia have always felt a little guilty about the obvious disadvantages that many of our fellow D.C. residents experience living in and growing up way to the southeast, on the other side of the Anacostia. Along with our many community gardens here in Northwest, we have our Whole Foods and our Harris Teeter’s and our Trader Joe’s, our Safeway and our Giant. Until fairly recently, Ward 8 had no supermarkets at all. Now it has one. The entire ward had two underutilized community gardens–Barry Farms and Fort Stanton. In August it broke ground on a third, Shipley Community Garden.
In other words, Ward 8 is still struggling to shake its reputation as a classic urban food desert. The situation was so dire, the city’s health department stepped in with a program to place fresh produce in the ward’s convenience stores.
So when I saw a line in a recent food article about a garden project in Ward 8, I was seized by a need to investigate. An inquiry placed on a listserv or two resulted in the particulars of the meeting, or at least where and when it was being held. With that, I boarded the subway bound for a part of the city I had not visited in years, not knowing exactly what I would find when I arrived at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church.
The Early Childhood Obesity Collaborative, established in 2006 with the idea that obesity can be prevented, now has nearly 140 members–health providers, individual physicians, poverty activists, food pantries, government agencies, media outlets. According to Canary Girardeau, the idea of planting gardens came up in an earlier town hall meeting, where several Ward 8 residents inquired how they might start growing food in their backyards.
Since then, Yvette Muhammad has been collecting every link to gardening resources in the District she can get her hands on. The next question is, Where to start? The collaborative and SHIRE are also making plans to build a first-rate playground to address the issue of children getting enough exercise. Perhaps, Muhammad mused, there could be a food garden adjacent to the playground? The idea reminded me of the children’s community garden a group called City Blossoms has built next to a playground in my own neighborhood. Perhaps that could be a model?
There is something perversely ironic about community gardens going underutilized in an area that is so desperately in need of access to wholesome, nutritious food. Can that be turned around? Can Ward 8 residents be sold on the idea of growing their own? It may be too early to say that the good food movement has arrived in Ward 8. But something is definitely stirring.