MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- In Memphis, only seven out of 77 high-poverty neighborhoods are within reasonable distance of a full-service supermarket.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines these remaining 70 neighborhoods as food deserts, which means that residents of these areas don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Grocery stores in these areas are more than one mile away and most residents don’t have a personal vehicle. Public transportation in these areas is often unreliable.
A 2010 Gallup poll ranked Tennessee second in the nation for states lacking access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods. The same poll also ranked Memphis as the hungriest city in the country, with 26 percent of people in the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area saying that they couldn’t afford to buy food for their families at least once in the past 12 months.
Community gardens and urban farms scattered throughout these same high-poverty food desert neighborhoods are helping to supply hungry residents with healthy, low-cost, fresh food.
Girls Inc.: A 9.5-Acre Oasis
The 9.5-acre Girls Inc., girl-run urban farm produces thousands of pounds of produce each year, while teaching local girls about leadership, civic engagement, and entrepreneurship.
Girls Inc. is an international nonprofit with local affiliates across the U.S. and Canada. Girls Inc. of Memphis has been serving girls in Memphis ages six to 18 since 1946. Their farm is located in the north Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, which is a food desert. Frayser has a large geographic footprint with approximately 50,000 residents in predominantly residential neighborhoods. Many of the residents have lived there for more than 20 years and own their homes, but the exodus of local industry in the 1980s left many of the residents unemployed and in challenging circumstances.
The nearest grocery store is located about a mile or more from most homes in the neighborhood. In an area where many people don’t have a personal vehicle and the bus system is notoriously undependable, this is too far to walk carrying groceries, particularly in the hot, over-100 degree summers.
The farm’s central location makes it readily accessible by community members, some of whom it employs. The farm currently employs six local high school age girls and has plans to eventually employ 20. The girls run the farm under the mentorship of Miles Tamboli, expert farmer, making decisions about plant types, planting schedule, crop rotations, cover cropping, farm stand locations, pricing and donations.
The girls grow more types of produce than can be counted on two hands, and it’s all grown using organic practices. All of their plants are started from seed in a city-owned greenhouse which is made available for their use. The farm also partners with the Memphis Beekeepers Association to manage eight honeybee hives.
“The farm continues to be a striking example of the fact that you don’t need a whole lot to do something extraordinary,” says Lisa Moore, president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Memphis.
“The farm is an opportunity for the girls to develop amazing life skills they wouldn’t have otherwise, using nothing more than a few garden tools and a used shipping container to store things in.”
By the time the farm is running at maximum capacity, they estimate that they will be able to train approximately 1,000 girls annually about everything from farming and healthy eating to environmental science. The farm currently provides school programming to every eighth grade student of the Veritas Charter School system, whose student body is primarily composed of children from challenged areas. The students take what they learned back to their school and then complete a need-based service project.
The farm also offers farm to table programming focusing on where your food comes from to help address the disconnect between what fresh, whole food looks like and what it looks like once it’s been processed. The girl farmers attend meetings of the Frayser Exchange Club, and the community is tremendously supportive of the farm. Neighbors often stop by to help with the gardening and are regular farm stand customers.
GrowMemphis: 44 Urban Community Gardens and Counting
GrowMemphis has 44 gardens in 11 different food-insecure Memphis zip codes, and hopes to add more in the future. GrowMemphis is a nonprofit that helps communities build gardens to improve access to locally grown food in their neighborhoods. They envision a community with full access to affordable, fresh, locally and sustainably grown food.
The GrowMemphis gardens are spread across the city, in central Memphis, Midtown, Soulsville, and South Memphis neighborhoods, and are predominantly based in low-income neighborhoods that are located more than a mile away from the nearest supermarket. Groups interested in starting gardens submit simple applications to GrowMemphis that cover things like whether the proposed garden location gets sunlight, has a group of people committed to maintaining it, and has a willing and local garden leader.
GrowMemphis provides program gardens with technical knowledge, materials for construction of raised beds, soil, seeds and any resources and funding available. Gardens have a formal garden leader that often is a person with knowledge of planting and growing.
Neighbors are supportive of the gardens, and a few of the neighbors offer use of their hoses to gardens that don’t have their own water connection, in exchange for fresh vegetables during the growing season. Some of the gardens sell their produce at farm stands in front of their gardens and at local farmers’ markets. Smaller local farmers’ markets are working to increase their presence in the community and make transportation available to those who can’t easily get to them.
The garden leader of the Soulsville Knowledge Garden has increased awareness of her garden on a multi-state level by inviting out of state school children to work in the garden for an alternative spring break. These gardens have become inclusive, peaceful and safe areas in neighborhoods that sometimes have significant issues with crime. These gardens also improve the aesthetic of the neighborhood, and help to address urban blight one vacant lot at a time.
Midtown Mosque Garden: Bringing Life to Vacant Lots
The Midtown Mosque owns several vacant lots in the blighted Klondyke area of Memphis with the intention of revitalizing and beautifying the neighborhoods there. Under the leadership of Maricela Lou-Gaitor, a member of the mosque and former horticulturist of eight years at the Memphis Botanic Gardens, the Midtown Mosque garden has been flourishing since August 2015.
The development of the mosque and gardens are part of ongoing efforts to revitalize the neighborhood. From one of the gardens there are six vacant lots within view, a few of which the mosque plans to purchase to plant additional gardens. Gardens are important here, where the nearest supermarket is two miles away.
Plans are to transform the second lot into an urban orchard so that the community can enjoy fruit bearing trees and relax in a park-like setting with a gazebo, flowered trellises and benches.
The gardens represent visible signs of change to a neglected neighborhood. Lou-Gaitor describes a neighbor’s emotional response to the garden projects:
“When I told her about our plans for the garden her eyes became full of tears. She told me that she was 93-years-old and had been waiting for many years for someone to beautify her neighborhood and the gardens were a beautiful start.”
Not Just an Urban Problem: Martin Housing Authority Gardens
The Martin Housing Authority in Martin, about two hours northeast of Memphis, is part of a small, rural community of about 11,000 and is addressing many of the same problems of urban Memphis with two community gardens.
Though the city of Martin is surrounded by farmland, most of the Martin Housing Authority doesn’t have access to fresh produce. The Martin Housing Authority has many single-female-headed households, as well as elderly-headed-households, that do not have their own form of transportation. There are two supermarkets in the town, but both are on the opposite side of town from the Martin Housing Authority – an approximately six mile distance. The Martin Housing Authority after school program gardens help to provide some of these children and families with fresh produce.
The gardens also act as a sustainable science experiment that helps teach valuable planting, health and environmental science skills. The program was developed with help from the University of Tennessee at Martin, which has supplied technical expertise, compost, mulch and manpower.
Many of the vegetables harvested last season went to the homes of the gardeners where they helped enrich families’ diets. Entering the gardens’ second growing season, Robert Nunley, program coordinator for the Martin Housing Authority’s after school program said, “Children are tremendously excited about the new growing season and they have been regularly asking when they can start gardening again. We hope that we have sowed the seeds of these children growing into adults that remember that food that is grown in a garden is different than mass-produced and processed foods. In the low income communities where these children live, it is especially important to empower these underserved populations to grow their own food so that they can take more responsibility for their healthy choices.”
Fresh food is critical to well-being. With one plant at a time, these community gardens are helping to address a need. Over the summer of 2016, several food and farming nonprofits, including GrowMemphis, united under a single organization to address this need. Memphis Tilth, as the organization is called, will provide a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to building a better local food system with the mission of creating economically sustainable and socially equitable food systems.
Leila Donn previously worked for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Office of Sustainable Practices. She has a degree in Geology from Sewanee: The University of the South.