PUSHING POWER THROUGH PRODUCE

Jessica Cartagena
Jessica Cartagena Photo by Jeff Evans

When Jessica Cartagena looks at the high rises on Crystal Avenue in New London, she doesn't see public housing. She sees an island. One where the people who live there have limited access to cars and the only food within a comfortable walking distance is candy, chips and soda.

To Cartagena, the high rises and other islands in the city are denying people a basic human right: access to better food, like organic produce. In her dreams, she sees community gardens sprouting across New London, in the most impoverished neighborhoods, among the elderly and next to schools.

"The majority of people with low income are taking in what they need to survive…But we will make a change," she says. "Pretty soon, there's going to be plenty of community gardens. They will be in all the backyards."

"We" is F.R.E.S.H., the local organization created in 2004 to both educate city residents about the benefits of freshly grown, local produce and to help provide that produce to lower income residents. The organization grows its own produce at the Waterford Country School and sells it, at a much lower price than local markets, to needy New London residents.

Cartagena, who is 19 and a 2008 graduate of New London High School, has worked as a community organizer for F.R.E.S.H. for about three years. She's a passionate and energetic advocate not just for the group and its work, but for the very philosophies and political energies it represents. She wants to help revolutionize the way the poor eat and the way they view their food.

When she talks about F.R.E.S.H.she transforms from a teenage girl barely out of high school to someone to be reckoned with. Her voice grows stronger; her eyes light with fire. Her entire being compels you to listen to her message.

"Being part of F.R.E.S.H. broke this veil off my face and made me see things differently," she says.

More than an organic farm, F.R.E.S.H., an acronym that stands for Food, Resources, Education, Security, Health, is a movement intended to transform the food system in New London. Since its beginnings, F.R.E.S.H. has made good on its mission to provide cheap, organic produce through its "mobile market," a converted ice cream truck that lugs the produce into city neighborhoods.

The group sells organic lettuce for $1 and tomatoes for 25 cents, making stops at places like the Drop-In Learning Center, the Hempsted Street neighborhood and the side streets of various other communities.

Cartagena says the concept behind it is pretty basic. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist" to figure it out, she says.

But Reona Dyess - executive director of the Drop-In Learning Center, an after-school program that serves 100 students from kindergarten through high school - sees genius in the F.R.E.S.H. mission. Since the center began buying produce from F.R.E.S.H. several years ago its leaders have seen a marked change in the way its children relate to and think about food. They've developed a real taste and desire for F.R.E.S.H. vegetables. As a result, Dyess says, the center has expanded its relationship with F.R.E.S.H, getting produce delivered weekly, sponsoring a plot at F.R.E.S.H's organic garden site and planting its own garden at the learning center.

F.R.E.S.H., Dyess says, has changed the way kids at the center view food and that has changed the way the center provides it.

"Because our kids are telling their parents, 'Mom, you need to get cucumbers.' or 'Mom, did you know you can make salsa from scratch?' They actually ask for it. And what's awesome is, they're growing it."

Cartagena joined F.R.E.S.H. when she was 16 in an effort to help support her family. She saw a poster on the wall at New London High School and wanted to make good on a promise to herself and her mother to spread good in the world.

"I really loved my job," she recalls about her first days with F.R.E.S.H., "that I wasn't stuck in a Burger King. Because I made a promise to myself that no matter how many enemies I have, I won't have to serve them."

Soon after she started with F.R.E.S.H., she says, the politics of food became apparent to her. Each morsel, she says, represents a system that keeps poor people poor and rich people rich. The poor have less access to good food, while those better off have more access to it. She and others at F.R.E.S.H. call it the "pyramid of power."

At the base of this pyramid, Cartagena feels, are the poor and the marginalized. At the top, a white male holding a big bag of money. But she and others at F.R.E.S.H. see an unharnessed power in the base of that pyramid.

"We are the foundation," she says. "And we hold up the system that we live in. I tell people, 'You've got power over this. You can't just slip in this line and think that it's OK to be treated this way.'"

She knows well the importance of what she preaches. Cartagena has lived poor most of her life. Her first memories are of when she was 5 years old, living in a one-room New York City apartment with her mother, Aleida Milan, and four sisters Nayla, Angelica, Amy Lynn and Toni Ann. Her mother worked cleaning bathrooms from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They mostly survived on food stamps and were not strangers to the local food pantry.

"The bread (there) had mold on it," says Milan. "One time people stole my food stamps."

In New London, says Milan, she managed to make a life for herself and her children but only through long hours and English lessons at night from Centro de la Comunidad.

"By the time I got back at night, the girls were asleep," she said.

Meanwhile, in 2005, the family moved from one home in New London to another and began renting from Jose Guzman, a local man who has since been convicted of a massive housing scam that took advantage of mostly poor, Hispanic homeowners. More recently, Milan has been awarded a Habitat for Humanity House that will be built for the family in Ledyard. Cartagena helped her to fill out the application. The filing process, Milan says, took months.

F.R.E.S.H., says Cartagena, has helped her family to see the beauty in the world, despite the difficult circumstances they've endured.

"Everybody uses a car and you pass the trees. You pass everything (beautiful) just to get where you're going," she says.

Cartagena says she had a dream. In her dream, she read the words, "Heaven hides under her skin."

"I've never read anything before in my dream," she said. "It was just crystal clear. I think it was saying that even when you see the ugly in the world, the positive is inside you. Everyone has to find their own self. And when you find your purpose, you're in heaven."

Today, Cartagena educates F.R.E.S.H. workers in high school and middle school about the inner workings of America's food system. She also trains them to become advocates in their community. These young organizers work for the "mobile market," they pass out fliers in their neighborhoods and speak publicly throughout New London about the benefits of a grassroots movement to change the way we eat.

Cartagena calls it "stewardship of the power," a message F.R.E.S.H.'s leaders passed on to her and that she is now passing on to others.

As one of F.R.E.S.H.'s crew members, 15-year-old Yan Carlos has not only become a young farmer, but also an advocate for how the food we eat can change the world.

"I never used to eat vegetables," he says. "But in the farm I just get bored and sometimes you got to try it. We cook our vegetables. We try them out. Some people like it because they think it's a real cool job. Some people don't really know much about it. I feel it's changed how I think. It's taught me how to be responsible."

In talking about why sharing this knowledge is important, Cartagena evokes the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He was holding the lines, the strings, to everyone," she says. "And when he was assassinated and those strings broke, no one knew where to go. Everyone put their faith and dreams in one person."

Marie Solar, 65, is the point person for the F.R.E.S.H. mobile market stop at 127 Hempstead St., which now also hosts a community garden.

Having F.R.E.S.H. produce delivered has changed a lot of things for the residents in her neighborhood, she says, many of whom would otherwise rely on rides to the market or the Meals on Wheels program.

"People love the vegetables coming down here," Solar says. "I call them up. They come downstairs. They are wonderful vegetables."

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