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Garden advocates want residents to get their hands dirty in the name of better health

A new freedom movement is taking root in Buffalo. And it could unearth a lot of dirt.

Freedom Gardens, a project developed by Seeding Resilience, a coalition of local activists and community-based organizations, was formed in response to the Covid-19 health crisis. The project aims to establish – at no cost – 40 to 50 home-based outdoor gardens this month in city ZIP codes that are among the hardest-hit neighborhoods with Covid-19. Many of them are largely minority and immigrant and refugee communities, organizers said.

"We are saying the gardening is your first step towards freedom – freedom from poverty, freedom from disease, freedom from sickness. Freedom," said Gail Wells, president of Coppertown Block Club, one of the community organizations that comprise Seeding Resilience.

The member organizations already were in existence but came together to address the health crisis because of "the high numbers of us getting the virus and high numbers of us dying from the virus," Wells said.

Freedom Gardens will equip the home gardeners with tools, resources and education that will enable them to grow organic food to help feed their families. Recipients will be getting organic, non-genetically modified heirloom seeds, Wells said. "The highest quality of seed to produce the best."

They also will get a raised bed in which to grow their food so the roots will not grow into soil in the yard, which could be contaminated, Wells said.

The gardens are for city residents living in the 14204, 14207, 14208, 14209, 14211, 14213, 14215 ZIP codes. All but 14204 have triple-digit confirmed cases each.

According to the Erie County Health Department's Covid-19 tracking site as of 5 p.m. on May 5, the greatest number of cases – 322 – were in the 14215 ZIP code. That area includes University Heights, Kensington-Bailey, Kenfield, Fillmore-Leroy and Delavan-Grider neighborhoods and western portions of Cheektowaga.

The numbers show the health disparities in all of those those communities based on who is contracting the coronavirus infection at higher rates, said Jeanette Koncikowski, executive director of Grassroots Gardens WNY, another group with Seeding Resilience. Grassroots Garden is providing the material lumber, soil, seedlings.

"What Freedom Gardens is doing is looking at gardening as liberation for black and indigenous people of color – how they can use food for their own security," Koncikowski said.

"We're trying to empower people to take control over the food they eat," Wells said. "If we have control over the food we eat, then we might be able to be healthier. We might be able to make better choices."

City officials and health advocates have long argued that a lack of grocery stores in city neighborhoods makes it more difficult for people to buy fresh and healthier food. That often drives people to less-healthy processed foods.

Planting and tending to a garden could help break that cycle, Wells said.

"You save money if you grow your own food. You can spend money on other things instead of spending money on food. You might have more money for a better place to live. You might be able to open up a savings account," Wells said.

Not only are there health and economic benefits to gardening and interacting with nature, there is a psychological benefit, Wells said. For example, she added, there are apps that play nature sounds like birds in the trees or water running in a brook to bring down stress levels.

To request a garden,  go to www.facebook.com/events/584013572203521/permalink/588072241797654/ and sign up by 5 p.m. Monday.

Buffalo's Freedom Garden organizers include Food for the Spirit/Buffalo Food Equity Network, Access To A-Free-Ka, the Juneteenth Agricultural Pavilion Committee and the Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo. The project is based on a model out of Albany called Soul Fire in the City, created by activist farmer Leah Penniman.

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