Thursday, September 8, 2011

ACGA Conference in New York City (cont.)

This week we have our co-worker and friend, Chad Hegelmeyer, doing a guest-post about his experience at the ACGA Conference in New York.  Chad is an Americorps VISTA, working as a coordinator for the Healthy Klamath Coalition, and a member of the team to rejuvenate the Klamath Glen Community Garden.  He was a welcome addition on the trip to New York, and we can't wait to see the progress at the Klamath Garden that Chad will help usher in after attending the conference.  Thanks, Chad!

Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to talk about my previous experience in community gardening, mostly because my “previous experience” is limited to:
a.       occasionally watering a basil plant my mom bought for the kitchen of my college apartment to give it “a homier feel” (as if) and
b.      helping Angela Glore and Connor Caldwell in the Klamath Community Garden for a couple hours (during which time Angela asked me to get her a lettuce start, paused briefly, and then added, “You do know which one is lettuce, don’t you?”).

So when my job as a VISTA at Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods suddenly included building capacity for the community garden in the Klamath Glen, I felt a little under-qualified for the task. Fortunately, professional development is never difficult to come by in the BHC and VISTA worlds; Angela Glore came to my rescue by asking me if I would go, along with Connor and some folks from Open Door Clinic, to a four-day-long conference of the American Community Gardening Association in New York City. I responded in the words of Sid, the diabolical villain from Toy Story: “Double prizes!

My enthusiasm quickly waned, though. On the first morning of the conference, I woke up late and sore after spending the night on a too-short cot wedged between Connor’s bed and the TV because our hotel had been overbooked the night before. My mood continued to sour. It was mercilessly hot and humid in Manhattan. I briefly checked the conference schedule online and was met with beautiful photos of lush, green New York gardens with happy, smiling gardeners and community members standing in them. The difference between those gardens and what I saw in the Glen seemed like an insurmountable distance.

Walking down into the subway was like entering a sauna. After a short, but stifling, trip to 116th and Broadway, we climbed the stairs out of the station and found ourselves standing in the middle of a bustling farmers market (or, as they are called in New York, “a green market”) right on the street in front of the Columbia University auditorium where the conference was being held. We walked between vegetable stands, fruit stands, fresh cheese and dairy products, homemade organic jams, and freshly baked bread. We sampled incredible garden tomatoes, sweet plums, cheese sold by a pushy Mennonite, and literally the most delicious apple I’ve ever tasted. I was enjoying myself, but part of me still had this nagging frustration. In New York, it all seemed so easy and effortless. It reminded me of an episode of RadioLab we had listened to in Connor’s car while driving to the Medford airport the day before. The episode discussed some research that suggests that cities are actually more efficient—use less water and electricity and create less waste per capita—than sparsely populated areas. It seemed like the evidence supporting that theory was now hawking fresh, green cucumbers right before my eyes. New York was some kind of urban utopia where you could have your farmers markets, school and community gardens, and urban farms wherever and whenever you chose, and it was all a cinch to pull off.

Prior to the conference, I had been thinking a lot about the dichotomy between urban and rural. In my job, I see the distinction practically everywhere I look. In my capacity as a VISTA for the Building Healthy Communities initiative, I can’t help but notice that most of the other thirteen communities supported by the California Endowment are densely populated urban areas. As the “Klamath Promise Neighborhood Coordinator” (my official title), I’ve read then- Senator Obama’s speech about the Harlem Children’s Zone a hundred times and each time get a little twinge at the fact that its title is “Changing the Odds for Urban America” (I added the italics). After a few weeks of intense thought about this, I was beginning to feel a little stressed out about the subject—hence my grumpiness in New York. Somehow, after all of that thinking and reading, I had begun to consider the urban/rural dichotomy in terms of other opposite pairs like easy/difficult, efficient/messy, rich in resources/constantly lacking necessary resources. I had fallen into the classic “grass is always greener” conundrum, failing to see the reality of the similarities and differences between inner-city urban areas and isolated rural ones.

The reality check came Friday and Saturday when I spent one full day in various workshops and seminars led by real community gardeners and another full day touring gardens in the South Bronx. My first seminar on Friday morning was a case study on a school garden in Florida titled “A Tropical Oasis behind Barbed Wire.” Contrary to its saccharine title, the seminar was led by a man with long, wavy blonde hair and a permanent scowl through which he expounded primarily on the funding difficulties and arguments with administration inevitably forced upon people unfortunate enough to run school gardens. This seemed more in line with my pessimistic attitude, and I nodded knowingly at each of his complaints like a school gardening veteran.

The next day I boarded a bus headed to the Bronx with Breanne Sorrells and fifteen other conference-goers. Our first stop was the Jacqueline Denise Davis Garden, a small community garden, gazebo, and greenhouse shadowed by tall brick apartment buildings on the corner of Boston Road and E 165th Street. An employee from GrowNYC (a community gardening non-profit) and the neighborhood gardener who lived across the street gave us a rundown of the garden’s history. “How many volunteers do you have?” asked a conference-goer. The gardener responded that they had about ten regular volunteers, but had trouble recruiting and retaining more than that.

We continued to visit three more gardens in the Bronx that were maintained by community members and schools. Some had compost issues. Others had problems with vandalism. In another, a disagreement arose between two gardeners about how and when to harvest a certain type of pea.  I’m not sure why it took a four day conference to help me understand this, but my ultimate realization was that community gardening can be (and often will be) hard work. In the long run, there are no short cuts. There are no easy fixes. No matter where you live or what resources you have access to, the job of teaching people about growing food and nutritious eating is challenging. Food may be a commonplace thing in the U.S. (for some of us at least), but despite this, our relationship with food and eating is anything but simple. The reward of community gardening is that, unlike a lot of the other work that I do on a daily basis, I get to see the tangible fruits of my (limited) labor in person: the complex tang of a fresh tomato, nutrient-rich dirt under my nails, the smirk of a student volunteer who is secretly enjoying her work in the garden despite earlier claims to the contrary. The best things are always worth working for.

In the end, it’s good to know that Del Norte County has something in common with New York.

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