Community gardeners pick up plants, seeds, fertilizer, and books at Isles garden distributions. (Photo credit: Isles)

Fifty pounds of lettuce, greens and radishes — that’s the donation that Trenton-based Isles, Inc. made to a local food bank in early June. Like other nonprofits around the country, Isles is helping fill a crucial gap for families who can’t afford groceries during the coronavirus-induced economic crisis.

But Isles’ team members didn’t just donate that food. They grew the produce themselves, in one of the organization’s two urban gardens. The donation is Isles’ first of the 2020 growing season, but not the last.

And to supplement the food it’s giving away, Isles is working harder than ever to train Trenton residents to grow food themselves — a skill that some say is crucial both to surviving the pandemic and fighting for social justice.

Founded in 1981, Isles works to foster community resilience and sustainability through job training, family support services, financial advising and a host of environmental programming.

“You’ve probably heard the term ‘food desert.’ We use the term ‘food swamp.’ You can get healthy food, but it takes some work to find it and get to it.”

Jim Simon, Deputy Director of Community Planning, Isles

According to Jim Simon, deputy director of community planning and development at Isles, urban agriculture is one of the nonprofit’s most effective tools for promoting healthy living and civic engagement among the residents it serves.

“If you can get people on a block to get along and reach for common goals through growing food or making your block look more beautiful, they can translate those skills to, ‘Alright, I want to show up at a city council meeting and talk about crime on my block or lack of streetlights or other infrastructure issues,’” Simon says.

Food security has long been an urgent problem in Trenton, even before the pandemic. Though over 85,000 people live in the city, there are few full-service grocery stores with a variety of healthy food, according to Simon. And since more than 27 percent of Trenton’s residents live in poverty, many people struggle to afford fresh, nutritious produce.

“You’ve probably heard the term ‘food desert,’” Simon says. “We use the term ‘food swamp.’ You can get healthy food, but it takes some work to find it and get to it.”

As part of its Isles Garden Support Network, Isles provides plants, seeds and technical support to over 70 community gardens throughout Trenton. Twenty of those gardens belong to schools.

Isles also conducts regular food-asset mapping, to track corner stores, farmers markets and more throughout the city; runs a training garden to teach new growers the basics of at-home gardening; and hosts a free three-week summer camp, called Camp Carrot, to foster a love for agriculture and nature in the city’s youth.

But the pandemic has only worsened food access issues in Trenton. As of May 30, approximately 1.1 million New Jersey residents have filed for unemployment as a result of the coronavirus crisis. To help out-of-work neighbors put food on the table, Simon says Isles is ramping up and rapidly modifying its urban agriculture programming.

“If families can save money on their household budget by being able to grow at least a little bit of the food themselves, that makes a big, big difference,” Simon says. “Especially if you’re trying to make a car payment or pay rent or pay for childcare.”

Donating fresh produce is just the start. Since the onset of the pandemic, Isles has distributed over 100 pounds of seeds, 1,000 pounds of fertilizer and thousands of seedlings to its garden network members. In particular, Isles is working to support its school gardens, since Trenton’s out-of-session public schools are serving as hubs for food distribution and other community resources throughout the pandemic.

“We identified the largest school gardens that we support and gained access to those through connections to plant those out,” Simon says. “So even if kids couldn’t come back to school, we could use those as gleaning gardens for families who are coming to pick up food, to incorporate fresh food into the distribution.”

To help amateur gardeners learn to grow food in their own backyards, Isles has shifted its workshops, usually offered out of its training garden, to gardening webinars. Isles staff is also coordinating Google groups to connect passionate home gardeners, allowing them to share resources and tips, and working with local teachers to incorporate gardening lessons in their online curriculum.

“It’s been tough because normally we do the workshops in-person, and they’re real hands-on and experiential,” Simon says. “But we’re looking at this as an opportunity to make these resources available to everyone.”

According to Simon, it’s crucial that Trenton residents learn to grow food themselves. That way, people won’t need to rely on outside resources for food access, which are scarce to begin with and are only becoming less dependable as supply chains fracture and demand and prices skyrocket.

“There’s the big focus on emergency food, which is critical,” Simon says. “But it’s important to look beyond that and really promote food resiliency. We want to get people caring about it and give them the tools to grow food, bring people together and make communities beautiful.”

Recent protests over police brutality and racial injustice — which took place in Trenton in early June — can also be seen as an opportunity for food sovereignty. Black communities suffer more from food insecurity than white communities. And Trenton, with a population that’s 48.6 percent Black, is no exception.

Gardening is seen by some as a means of returning power to disenfranchised communities, by making people less dependent on food systems that fail to meet their needs. And as activists call for local governments to direct funding from police departments to social programming, they often cite urban gardens as one of those programs that will strengthen communities.

“A guy in the garden taught me the other day that when I planted my zucchini and squash, I should have planted them closer together. It would’ve worked better. That’s what you learn at a community garden. Other people teach you things, and then maybe someone will come along who you can teach something to.”

Yolanda Wimbley, West Trenton resident

Yolanda Wimbley, 50, lives in West Trenton and in her free time, grows produce in a community garden on a once-vacant lot on Bellevue Avenue. She got involved with Isles last year, when she decided to attend the nonprofit’s gardening workshops. After Wimbley completed her training, Isles suggested she join a garden in the Isles Garden Support Network in order to apply what she learned and connect with her neighbors.

“A guy in the garden taught me the other day that when I planted my zucchini and squash, I should have planted them closer together. It would’ve worked better,” Wimbley says. “That’s what you learn at a community garden. Other people teach you things, and then maybe someone will come along who you can teach something to.”

Wimbley says her favorite part of gardening is the satisfaction of watching her plants grow. Showing off the finished products to her friends, neighbors and seven-year-old son makes her feel proud, and brings her a sense of joy that is much needed during the stress of the pandemic.

According to Simon, older adults are some of Isles’s most active gardeners. But the nonprofit is hoping to reach more young people with its urban agriculture programming, to provide that generation — which is leading social movements like Black Lives Matter — with the tools they need to be effective agents of change.

“The opportunity to work with young adults in their 20s or 30s and to help them really be advocates for healthy food and helping instill that sense of stewardship, that’s a huge opportunity,” Simon says. “It’s a way to show people that they can build a garden or plant some flowers or transform a vacant lot, with little more than sweat equity. It gives them a sense of control and accomplishment.”

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Brianna Baker for Next City, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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