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Mason Square, a low-income neighborhood in Springfield (Mass), has few options for those who want to eat healthy. Granted, there are plenty of burgers, pizzas, grinders and chicken nuggets in the neighborhood, just visit McDonald’s or the local Antonio’s. You could have your fill of fried foods, but if you’re looking for bananas, fresh vegetables or whole grains, you won’t find them in the local corner stores. These bodegas, which mostly stock processed foods, are more common than grocery stores and provide canned foods which cost much less than natural options. The fruit that some bodegas have to provide (by law) is an unpopular option and many store owners won’t stock large amounts because it all goes to waste. As more and more grocery stores close, the McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants continue to attract huge crowds; the dollar menu is both convenient and affordable. In this neighborhood, people have to take the bus to the Longmeadow Big Y in order to get healthier options because most supermarkets avoid urban areas and prefer the “quiet” suburbs. Some residents, many of whom don’t own cars, lack the time and energy to take public transportation to locations that are outside of town. The low-income community then becomes more at risk for obesity and other complications; in Massachusetts, Latinos are 50% more likely to have type 2 diabetes or obesity.
Mason Square is a veritable food desert, an area where it’s difficult to find whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat milk and other healthy options. These areas span much more of the U.S than some of us would care to believe, from Detroit to Chicago to Oakland to Jackson. In Oakland, over 150 local grocery stores existed before they were forced out by larger chains, a change that greatly disrupted the local community; local businesses make up the crux of such areas, especially because more than half of the money they bring in goes back to be invested in the neighborhood. In Chicago, more than 600,000 people live in areas without adequate sources of healthy food. And when grocers do enter into such neighborhoods, one has to be sure that they will actually provide fresh produce; some stores, like Aldi, are more likely to stock “core items” like ketchup, salt and olive oil and leave less options for those looking to eat healthy.
How does one combat this?
Karriem Beyah, a merchant in the South Side of Chicago, opened a grocery store called “Farmer’s Best Market” where locals can come buy fresh produce at a reasonable price. His store lies right on the border of a predominantly Black neighborhood and a Latino neighborhood, which helps reduce travel time for both communities. Beyah wanted to provide an option similar to Trador Joe’s for his own community: ”This [Trader Joe's] should be on the South Side,” he said. Yet stores like Trader Joe’s didn’t want to enter the “risky” areas that the South Side presented, so Beyah took it onto himself to change the community for the better. Although (as of 2011) his grocery store wasn’t receiving as much business as he hoped, Beyah still plans on opening 5 more stores in the area.
Some activists have taken to building community gardens, areas where community residents can come pick vegetables . One specific activist used a grant from the food bank to build one such garden in Mason Square, where the closest store doesn’t even sell fruits or vegetables. Activists are also pushing the city of Springfield to donate vacant lots to residents so they can begin a community garden. The gardens can not only provide healthy options to the community, but also help beautify the city. Although there’s still a debate over who will provide water and pay for landscaping for the plots, there is considerable process being made. Such gardens have popped up in Hartford, Oakland, Holyoke, and many more cities across the U.S.
Campaigns like community gardens mark the difference between Environmental Justice and mainstream environmentalism. What proponents of the mainstream movement forget is that low-income communities are often those most harmed by pollution from factories and waste dumping in their neighborhoods, aspects that the mainstream population would rather ignore than change. Because their neighborhoods lie on cheaper land, large companies find them more suitable to use as toxic waste sites.
While environmentalists are more focused on recycling or driving hybrids or whether they remembered to bring their re-usable bag to Whole Foods, EJ activists concentrate on working with grassroots organizations, on the ground, not just for but with a community. Nuestras Raices , just a half-hour away in Holyoke, is a non-profit that was founded in 1992. Created by a group of Puerto Ricans with strong farming backgrounds, the organization transformed a polluted South Holyoke lot into a huge community garden where locals can plant and sell produce. Nuestras also runs a youth program and their own EJ initiative; after getting feedback from the community, the group is now working on addressing air and water quality (especially with the Connecticut River) and land use.
Last spring I went to Holyoke Bound, a sort of “orientation” to the city of Holyoke which fell flat for me (boring presentations, ineffective workshops, etc.) The only redeeming quality of the day was our visit to Nuestras. We came on the day of a huge celebration-after being served a heaping plateful of chicken, rice and bananas, we sat alongside community members and watched a dance performance. The place was bustling, filled with families enjoying the lunch and catching up. I marveled at the size of the garden and the feeling of community, the kind that can’t be described in a CCE brochure.
Gardens such as these represent a transformation, a true “green revolution.” Replacing needles and broken glass with fresh tomatoes, peppers and carrots does much more than just beautify. ”I don’t know what impact this garden has on them, but I do think that there’s a change,” says a Springfield activist about how local children are responding to the garden in Mason Square, “and I think part of it is they’re seeing something in their neighborhood that has life.”