A garden is much more than a collection of plants. For young people in the Massachusetts Avenue Project’s Growing Green program, a garden is a way to develop job skills and learn about food justice. For individuals served by Grassroots Gardens, another local not-for-profit organization, a garden builds community and can help them heal from tragedy. And, for the neighborhoods each organization impacts, a garden combats food insecurity for countless families with its nutritious harvest.
“It changes perceptions of a neighborhood when people see an active community garden,” said Melissa M. Fratello, executive director of Grassroots Gardens. “We see neighbors who haven’t talked in 20 years enter a garden space and become the best of friends. Some of our gardeners have gone through a personal trauma or have seen violence in their neighborhoods, and the garden is a place of therapy for them. We’ve had students tell us that without the food coming from the garden, there were nights they didn’t know what they would have eaten.”
Founded in 1994, Grassroots Gardens asks community members to identify a vacant lot that can be converted into a garden. The nonprofit leases the property from the city, provides insurance and helps neighbors plant the first crops.
From there, community members tend and harvest the produce, which all goes back to the gardeners’ tables. Each year, the organization works with more than 2,000 individuals on more than 100 gardens in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
In addition, through the Buffalo Sprouts School Gardens initiative, the organization works with about 20 Buffalo schools on gardens that support STEM learning and provide fresh produce.
“When kids grow the food themselves, they get excited and are more apt to try it,” Fratello said. “It creates changes in their everyday behavior, and many take that food home to their families. What is really exciting is the cross-cultural connections with our immigrant and refugee students. People can grow food they grew in their home country and share that. Everybody can connect over food.”
Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP), a nonprofit founded by West Side residents in 1992, promotes food justice by empowering youth leaders to make change in their community. Each year, the Growing Green program employs and trains 50 Buffalo students, ages 14 to 20, who work on every aspect of MAP’s urban farm, engage in policy work, improve their writing skills and gain business skills by developing a new product.
“Our greatest impact is how we affect the lives of young people we work with,” said Diane Picard, MAP executive director, who notes that 96 percent of MAP youth go on to college. “We really see them as future leaders in the community and in changing the food environment where they live, and we spend a lot of time nurturing their abilities and helping them set goals.”
MAP’s Mobile Market provides access to affordable, nutritious food in neighborhoods across Buffalo. Once a week, the truck delivers food from MAP’s farm and other local farms to six sites, where it accepts cash, SNAP and WIC benefits, and provides nutrition education and recipes. In 2016, the market served more than 3,300 households, Picard said.
This year, MAP is tackling its biggest project yet: construction of an 11,000-square-foot farmhouse, set to open next spring. The two-story farmhouse will be a hub for the Growing Green program and provide about 3,000 square feet of food storage, as well as additional space for community nutrition and cooking classes and two affordable housing units.
“Buffalo has come a long way in understanding the value of urban growing, but there’s always more than can be done in education and policy to allow people to have control over where their food comes from,” Picard said. “We work with some amazing young people, and if you just give them an opportunity, they can really bloom and thrive.”
For more on Grassroots Gardens and MAP, visit grassrootsgardens.org and mass-ave.org.