Margaret DeVos is executive director of the Southside Community Land Trust, which works to increase sustainable urban food production in Providence and the surrounding area. DeVos has served as director of special projects at the Michigan department of human services, chief of staff at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and vice president for real estate and development at Mexicantown Community Development Corporation in Detroit. Here, she discusses how her organization is involved locally in making food systems sustainable.
PBN: In the 33 years since your founding, how many acres of land has the trust transformed into urban farms or gardens in Greater Providence? How has that affected urban families?
DEVOS: The trust controls more than six acres of land used for urban farms and community gardens. We have worked with partners – schools, churches, community centers, etc. – to help transform an additional five acres of land for the purpose of growing food. This land supports a network of over 750 families through 47 community gardens and urban farms.
The families in our gardens say that the food they grow would cost them up to $700 each year if purchased at the grocery store. And they say that the almost all of the vegetables they eat come from their community garden plots. Beyond that, in the neighborhoods where most of our gardens are located, fresh, healthy and affordable food can be hard to find in local shops. It makes sense for many to grow their own food.
It also makes sense for many to grow food for their neighbors. Let’s face it – not everybody has a green thumb. And not everybody can get a community garden plot; there are waiting lists at each of our gardens. Some of the land we own is devoted to people who are growing food for markets in South Providence, Olneyville, West End, and Mount Pleasant. These urban farmers sell at the Broad Street and Parade Street farmers markets and also through subscription grocery services. You have to get to the market early to buy this great food – the farms stands often sell out within an hour and a half.
PBN: The trust supports sustainable community food systems, including City Farm in South Providence and Urban Edge Farm in Cranston. What are the biggest accomplishments for these programs so far?
DEVOS: I would say the biggest accomplishment of our work is how generously people across the state have received it. First, consumers in Rhode Island are dedicated to buying and eating local food. Second, people want to help make a difference for families in need. Third, people want to reclaim control over a food system that isn’t working.
Our neighbors can easily see that by making more healthy food available, we set off a ripple effect that touches all areas of life. People suffer less from diabetes, heart disease and hypertension; vacant lots are turned into green, public spaces; deserted streets become populated with neighbors in the garden who share growing tips and recipes; nature is reintroduced into the city and the eco-system starts its work again.
In recent years, we have seen an even greater upswing in public support. In 2011, the General Assembly and Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee passed a law that made plant agriculture an allowable use in all zoning designations across the state. In 2012, the Providence City Council and Mayor Angel Taveras adopted a comprehensive plan calling for expansion of urban agriculture. And, in 2013, the state, the city and many local institutions secured considerable funding for investment in community gardens and farms.
PBN: According to the Rhode Island Foundation’s May 27 blog, the Lots of Hope initiative, in partnership with the Foundation and other national funders, is turning vacant, city-owned properties into urban farms. How is the trust involved? What are the benefits?
DEVOS: Lots of Hope is another sign of this growing enthusiasm. It is a program that is led by the city of Providence and calls on partners from all sectors to join forces and support urban agriculture. Last year, the lead project was Manton Bend Community Farm. The trust worked with Providence, the state Department of Health, the Rhode Island Foundation and the African Alliance to construct quarter-acre urban farm and community garden on a city owned parcel of land in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
The project features 12 community garden plots and 50 beds for five women farmers who are growing food there right now. These women sell fresh – mostly African – vegetables at the Parade Street market located in Armory Park each Thursday from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Projects like Manton Bend Community Farm are happening on different scales in cities across the globe. People all around the world are finding that it makes economic, social and environmental sense to grow food in the heart of population centers. Why? The most experienced urban farmers in Providence can earn up to $8,000 a year on a ¼-acre plot. They use no chemicals at all and they practice sustainable, bio-intensive methods. This is extremely productive farmland. For the purposes of comparison – a typical farmer in the U.S earns $222 from ¼-acre of land when it is being farmed for corn. As we support farmers through projects like Lots of Hope, we help more people have access to both healthy foods and economic opportunity.
PBN: The next phase of this initiative involves Providence leasing greenhouse space to new or socially disadvantaged farmers. Why are you choosing to participate?
DEVOS: The trust has been working with beginning farmers since our founding in 1981. We have developed farmers markets, farm incubators, farmer co-operatives and farmer training programs. We operate an apprentice program where 80 percent of the graduates are currently farming for a living and two of the graduates are farming within the city of Providence. We operate a three-quarters-acre farm in South Providence with revenues of about $75,000 each year. While our role in the greenhouse project hasn’t been fully defined, we are looking forward to providing any kind of support that is needed to the city of Providence, any of the partners, and to the farmers who will be growing there.
PBN: What is the biggest challenge to advocating for sustainable food systems?
DEVOS: The trust wants to build sustainable food systems that work for people and the planet. Our vision calls for a food system that improves public health rather than one that contributes to epidemic levels of diet-related chronic disease. It calls for a food system that provides enough for all children and adults to have what they need rather than one that leaves people struggling and hungry. It calls for a food system that supports eco-systems and biodiversity rather than one that contaminates our land and waters with chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
To do this, we have to create a new model for how we eat. Creating a new model calls for new ideas and actually learning new things. This is hard. It also calls for continuing to advocate for some old ideas – doing the right things, the right way. This is also hard. If there were easy answers we would have already found them. Fortunately, continuing to look for those answers is the best thing that we can do.