Cover Story

The East Side Goes Greener

How small growers, community gardens and composters on the East Side are doing the big work for the earth

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There’s nothing quite like biting into a perfectly ripe tomato on a hot summer day. After the sweetness subsides, take a moment and consider what it took to get that tomato to the plate. Where was it grown? Who grew it? Was it done in an environmentally conscious way? Then consider that you can grow it yourself.

There’s an increasing effort throughout East Side neighborhoods for people to grow their own food, or at least be more mindful about where it comes from. As a result, community gardens have sprouted around town, turning what started as an alternative food source into a vehicle to bring neighbors together. “The members’ group built everything,” says Nancy Buron, president of the steering committee for the Summit Neighborhood Community Garden. “They built the raised beds, spent an entire day moving huge amounts of dirt into the beds, then on another day they just spread mulch.”

Massive amounts of planning went into getting the Summit Garden off (and in) the ground. Although this is the very first growing season, the project has been five years in the making. “It’s been a community garden before the garden was even there,” says Nancy – community members were polled to ensure buy-in before the gardeners formed their subcommittee. Now there are 28 filled plots with room for 40, and even a waiting list of five to six people.

Neighbors have joined for a variety of reasons. Some are parents who want to teach their kids where their food comes from. Others are looking to connect with aspects of their culinary cultural heritage by growing certain items. Still others have a shady yard or no yard at all and look to the community garden to grow their veggies.

From the compost to the seeds to the fruits of labor, gardens give you almost complete control over what ends up on your plate – a drastically different interaction with food than when you pick something up at the market. “Everything in our plots is free of pesticides and chemicals,” explains Keri Marion, garden manager at Fox Point Community Garden. The altruistic aspect of the gardens is distinctive as well – members work collaboratively and weed communal areas and repair plots collectively. “It’s required that everyone spend two hours each month maintaining public areas of the garden,” says Keri. “It’s only about a half hour each week, and members usually do it before they work on their own plot.” Gardeners also share their own bounties with others. If someone is separating bulbs and has extra, they’ll leave them up for grabs. They also share their expertise when needed.

Enthusiasm for community gardens is growing: Sessions Street Community Garden has a waiting list of over 40 people and the Sharing Garden at Billy Taylor Park offers an ongoing series of workshops for beginners. The Sharing Garden is particularly focused on addressing the issue of food insecurity in the Mount Hope neighborhood. “This is a community that is often neglected because it is buried on the East Side,” says Dannie Ritchie, founder of Community Health Innovations of RI. “People don’t tend to think of the East Side as having an underserved community that lives in poverty. They haven’t been able to secure resources to address the challenges of hunger and food insecurity."

Terms like “food deserts” and “food swamps” are common when talking about hunger. But Dannie calls Mount Hope’s experience a “food mirage:” Community members can see food, but they can’t reach it due to low income. This is where the Sharing Garden comes in. It’s a teaching garden, where members of the community learn skills by sharing responsibility for shared plots, and where each takes home a portion of the garden’s bounty. Dannie has also had a hand in upgrading the teaching gardens at Vincent Brown Recreation Center and the hybrid school and community gardens at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School

It’s these types of gardens that Dannie hopes are building a stronger sense of social connection in the neighborhood. This is a long-term project for her, and she’s not leaving anytime soon. She’s also ensuring that community members’ voices are heard throughout the entire process, so that they are empowered to create for themselves the type of change that works best for them. She’s done this by creating a steering committee for Community Health Innovations of RI called Empowerment Dialogue for Community Action, in which community members give feedback and direction on grants and programs that are being considered by the organization, determining for themselves aspects of the health care they receive. “It’s about asking questions and acting on what their answers are,” she explains. “It’s about connections and conversations.”

For those who are able to garden on their own property but don’t have the know-how to do it, Stewart Martin is here to help. He started Providence GardenWorks to demonstrate just how easy it is to set up an urban garden in virtually any space. He installs gardens on his customers’ properties and trains them on how to care for them.

Stewart sets up home composting bins as well – contraptions that add nutrients to garden soil, maintaining its fertility and quality, and divert food scraps from landfills. This is particularly important given that the Central Landfill in Johnston will reach capacity in 20 to 25 years.

Stewart is passionate about educating urban gardeners on composting because of the impact it’s made on his life and on the environment. For 14 years, says Stewart, “I have not contributed so much as a cupful of food waste to the waste stream. Food waste is a big contributor to climate change, and yet 100 percent of food waste is compostable. It’s one of our biggest problems as a country and yet the solution is relatively simple.”

While composting at home is a step in the right direction, there are literally tons of food scraps that still make their way to the landfill. Nat Harris and Leo Pollock recognized the problem and addressed it head on by starting The Compost Plant. The Compost Plant is a commercial operation that takes food scraps from local businesses (not homes), including Brown, Lincoln School, Moses Brown, Seven Stars, Miriam and Farm Fresh RI. “It’s a close looped system,” explains Leo. “We pick up food scraps from these facilities. It’s then turned into compost that’s used to grow food which goes back into the community.”

His and Nat’s efforts have diverted 3,000 tons of food waste from the Johnston landfill. They work with Earth Care Farm in Charlestown to turn these scraps into compost that’s a 100 percent Rhode Island product. The compost is then bagged in Warren, where Leo and Nat lease land from the town. Once the compost is bagged, folks can pick it up around town (it’s currently available at Cluck Urban Farm Supply and Simple Pleasures) or get it delivered right to their yards. “Given interest and awareness in composting, the demand is growing,” Leo says. “Ultimately, in order to really capture more and more of the food scraps, we need more composting infrastructure, and this has to develop in partnership [with local communities]. The collection can go up but you need more processing at some point.”

It’s all of these small changes – growing organic vegetables, diverting food scraps from a landfill that’s running out of room – that are the impetus for larger ones that alter how we find sustenance and interact with the natural world. It’s the connection with a neighbor and the larger community. It’s about having agency over what you put into your body. It’s learning how others don’t have this kind of access and making it accessible. It’s about adopting an idea and making small changes to enact it, one food scrap and one garden at a time.