What we do with our empty spaces says much about what we value as a community. Some communities build high-rise condominiums, some build fancy beachfront resorts, others build playgrounds. The problem lies in the extent to which communities are involved in the claiming of their empty spaces or if others do the claiming for them. It seems like often times a community has very little say in how its vacant spaces are occupied. Gentrification comes to mind.
At Alleycat Acres, we plant seeds in empty spaces because it’s a way to reclaim and place space back into the hands of its rightful owners. These small, vacant lots turned urban farms serve as places for people in the city to reconnect with food, each other and the land. Our farms are 100 percent volunteer-run, where people from all walks of life work alongside one another to redefine urban living in a space that may have otherwise never existed. Contained within these farms is a story about the complicated relationship between people, community and food. It is a story about not only re-envisioning the cityscape, but also, how food is a binding force between us all, regardless of where we live.
When we first began to clear space for an urban farm in Beacon Hill, we were eager to get community members involved. People walking by would ask who we were and what we were doing, but we also wanted to reach out in a direct, intentional way. During our work parties, groups would go door-to-door introducing Alleycat Acres and sharing its vision of community-run farms.
During one of our summer evening work parties, a thirteen-year-old boy named Alan, who lived in the apartment building next to our Beacon Hill farm, came over and asked if he could help. He said he had gotten into trouble at school, and his mom sent him over to work for us as his punishment. Although we did not exactly support the idea of farming as punishment, we enthusiastically welcomed him. Alan was one of the last volunteers to leave that evening, and he came back on his own every week for the rest of the summer. He helped with every aspect of the farm, from planting to harvests. He was always eager to learn and supported less experienced volunteers. At the end of the summer, Alan’s mom told us that when a family friend asked how he spent his summer, he said he had a great time as a “founding member of Alleycat Acres.”
According to WhyHunger, a nonprofit organization that aims to eliminate hunger and poverty both in the United States and globally, community food security is “a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally appropriate, nutritionally sound diet through an economically and environmentally sustainable food system that promotes community self-reliance and social justice.”
At the root of this concept is the question: Shouldn’t everyone afford and have access to healthy, nutritious food? Under our existing paradigm, one’s ability to access fresh fruits and vegetables depends on class status. In more affluent neighborhoods, residents have their pick of places to shop, from traditional groceries to Whole Foods or a local co-op, and can easily purchase organic bananas or ten different types of greens and potatoes if they so choose. We are more likely to see people gardening in these communities, as well. In other neighborhoods, there are more corner stores than grocery stores, and one can more easily buy a six-pack of beer than a six-pack of tomatoes. Fast food chains reign supreme, backyards are a luxury, and it’s not unlikely to find a longer line at the food bank than in the grocery store.
The US industrial food system has dominated communities across the country now and for the better part of the 20th century. What once was a cure for hunger has become a disease. We believe empty lots and vacant spaces are the front lines in the battle to build sustainable, equitable food systems. The weapons are seeds and the strategy is simple. Grow food. Reclaimed spaces can be transformative.
When it comes to the good life in the future, we have each other, we have knowledge and we have a lot of empty spaces that we can either claim or see claimed for us. By choosing to transform this common ground, we have the opportunity to plant the seeds of change.