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Bruce Babcock only needs to walk across the street from his residential home to get to the 40,500 square foot farmland he works on to feed his community.
As a community garden coordinator, Babcock works with volunteer growers and food enthusiasts to provide enough freshly grown produce each week without access to much food to hundreds of low-income Phoenix residents.
The Spaces of Opportunity neighborhood system is among several initiatives launched in Phoenix in recent years, according to other US communities such as Oakland, California; Detroit and Chicago, where urban gardens aim to improve dining options in racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
The effort has become increasingly important in the face of mounting hunger across America amid the coronavirus pandemic. For example, more than 5 million people in Arizona filed for unemployment this year, and many are concerned about where their next meal will be from.
The Arizona Department for Economic Security said that by October, more than 900,000 people had applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Grocery Tokens.
Spaces of Opportunity works with the Roosevelt School District, Orchard Community Learning Center, Unlimited Potential, Tiger Foundation, and Desert Botanical Garden to create and improve access to healthy food through farmers markets and distribution programs.
It is located in southern Phoenix, a predominantly Latin American and black community that health officials refer to as “food deserts” due to limited access to fresh produce and other healthy options.
A map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that such food deserts are widespread in Arizona and other parts of the Southwest. A lack of fresh food can leave people dependent on fast food and other products that can leave them vulnerable to diet-related health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Babcock volunteered in the garden in 2015 after experimenting with an aquaponics project in his back yard. Shortly thereafter, he began paying for his own quarter acre lot.
According to Babcock, growers initially pay $ 5 a month for a quarter of an acre and can later expand to a whole acre property. There are now more than 60 gardeners working there and up to 200 have been working under Babcock since 2015.
“We really slowed down over the summer and I feared it wouldn’t pick up again because of COVID-19,” Babcock said. But people returned in the fall when the triple-digit temperature dropped and he opened up more land for gardeners.
Community interest in nutrition and nutrition education has sparked some of the growth, said John Wann-Angeles, director of the Orchard Community Learning Center.
Wann-Angeles, a former headmaster in the Roosevelt School District, said part of his interest came from his previous experience with children in hopes of educating young people to build a better future for their community.
Wann-Angeles gathered with volunteers at an elementary school in the Roosevelt district one early fall morning and wrapped vegetarian burritos for the meals they deliver every Thursday to up to 175 people with modest resources. Bags filled with seasonal fruit and vegetables were also ready for delivery.
Recipients on that day included residents of the Justa Center, which provides shelter, food and job placement for people over 55 who have lived on the street.
Wendy Johnson, executive director of the Justa Center, said Spaces of Opportunity’s fresh fruits and vegetables are “a treat for our residents.”
“The strawberries are a favorite. The oranges were gone in a few minutes, ”Johnson said, noting that residents are used to getting canned food. “Food is a privileged item when you are poor.”
On the farmlands of Spaces of Opportunity, former WNBA athlete, trainer, and executive Bridget Pettis runs Project Roots Arizona, the group she recently started after her retirement.
Project Roots is offering free bags of seasonal produce to residents of Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale and Glendale. sells garden boxes that people can use to grow their own produce at home; cooks soup for the homeless and sells vegetables at farmers markets across Metro Phoenix.
“There’s a lack of access, but it’s a lack of knowledge and education about food in these areas that we want to address,” Pettis said. “That’s what Project Roots wanted to bring – the knowledge about food.”
The International Rescue Committee, a leading resettlement agency for people coming to the United States from war and persecution, has a similar program in the Phoenix area called New Roots for Refugees.
Newcomers from places like Iraq, Sudan, and Afghanistan are given lots, seeds, and instructions on growing crops like tomatoes and watermelons, to sell their own family meals, or to add fresh, healthy options.
Farm Express, another fresh food initiative, has taken a more accessible approach, turning a 12-meter city bus and smaller shuttle into mobile markets selling fruit and vegetables in deprived areas of Phoenix at cost.
“We’re trying to ensure that working-class families have equal access to the produce that the restaurants get and that are sold in farmers markets,” said Elyse Guidas, executive director of Activate Food Arizona, which operates Farm Express.
Activate Food Arizona wholesalers and then charges the same prices to buyers who choose what they want from a list. Shoppers can take advantage of their state nutritional benefits and get a bit more products for free through a program funded by a local grant.
Matthew Forest, 32, said he was delighted with the low prices for fruit and vegetables he recently found while stopping at Farm Express next to a public housing project south of downtown Phoenix.
It was the first time that he and his girlfriend Eboni Davis (33) bought something from the brightly painted former city bus. The nearest grocery store is a 1 1/2 mile walk for Forest and Davis who do not have a car.
“That was a real experience,” said Forest after the couple spent less than $ 14 on a couple of bananas, a couple of oranges, collard greens, a grapefruit, a butternut squash, a green apple, a red onion, strawberries and a couple of potatoes .
“It’s a lot cheaper than the supermarket,” said Forest, before rolling the products home in a metal cart.