Syracuse University Helps Nurture Urban Gardening Organization

Mabel Wilson has one of the oldest community gardens in Syracuse, N.Y. 

And that’s something she’s proud about.

“I grow collard greens, peppers, grapes, Swiss chard, cauliflower, okra, spinach, lettuce and the list goes on,” says a boastful Wilson. “I love the work that I do. It’s been very rewarding.”

The 61-year-old took up gardening as a hobby when she was a youngster growing up in New Jersey, but now she thinks it’s almost a necessity, particularly in urban areas where locals sometimes find that they can’t afford the exorbitant food prices. 

“We get a chance to help people keep money in their pockets and help them stretch their dollars,” says Wilson. “Plus there is a nutritional value. Childhood diabetes has become a big issue, particularly among African-American children.”

Wilson is co-chairman of Syracuse Grows, a grassroots coalition of individuals who work to cultivate a just foodscape across the City of Syracuse. The group provides advocacy, programming, education and resources to support food justice and community development through gardening and urban agriculture.

And their biggest supporter is Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, which has directed resources to the group, including a community geographer who has assisted communities in examining land-use data and food-access statistics across the city.

Syracuse Grows grew out of a hunger campaign project aimed at focusing on the communities across Syracuse that were most in need of emergency food services.

“We recognized that the geography of hunger was changing,” says Evan Weissman, who is completing his doctoral work in geography at Syracuse University and will begin working at the university as a professor of food studies in the fall. He is co-founder of Syracuse Grows. “The group started to think about moving beyond emergency food. We started thinking more about self-sufficiency, access to food production and land and social justice issues.”

They trained their sights on the city’s vacant lots and partnered with community-based organizations already working on social justice issues, like the Northside Urban Partnership, which provides social services to the new wave of Bhutanese, Somalia and Congolese refugees who have relocated to the Syracuse area.

Many of these immigrants are actively growing peppers, tomatoes, pumpkins and greens on what used to be vacant eyesores. An ESL class, for example, is even taught at one of the gardens, with students learning English as they plant.

Over the course of a few years, 13 local gardens have sprung up across Syracuse, and activists say that they have plans to continue with their work. City Hall has even gotten involved in the project, convincing a local bank to recently underwrite funding for a new garden.

“Gardening is hard work and producing food is hard work,” says Weissman. “We always work from the ground up. We want to make sure that community support is there before we move forward.”

Other cities have followed Syracuse’s model.  For example, in Detroit, several colleges and universities have worked in collaboration with community gardeners to transform some of the city’s most beleaguered areas. The same is true in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Earlier this year, Paul Quinn College, Texas’ oldest historically Black college, turned its football field into a student-run farm in an effort to teach students about agriculture and business. The Food for Good farm produced about 2,200 points of produce, with some of the food serving students on campus and the remaining going to feed the hungry, according to college officials.

Community gardening isn’t new but has experienced a renewed interest, particularly in urban areas, as a result of first lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy work. Several years ago, Obama planted the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden during World War II.  Ever since, the organic garden has provided food for the first family’s meals and dinners, but Obama has said that the purpose of the garden was to educate school-age children about how fruit and vegetables are grown, particularly at a time when childhood obesity has become a growing concern.

Wilson agrees with Obama. That’s why she has gotten children between the ages of 4 and 15 involved in the gardening experience. 

“There is a great need for education and we want to pass down the knowledge of what adults know to the young people so they can keep these gardens in tact,” she says. “It’s good exercise for them to be out in the garden and out in the sun.  It’s amazing to see how surprised they are when they see a tomato on the bush or when they pick an apple or peer from a tree. It makes me feel good.”