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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    Fighting a ‘food apartheid’ in New London with public snack beds

    Davana Grabel with FRESH New London plants spinach seeds Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, in a snack bed located on Ledyard Street. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Editor’s note: This is the latest story in an occasional series looking at food insecurity and related issues in New London.

    New London — In New London, it can be easier for many residents to buy a beer than a fresh tomato, said Julie Garay, FRESH New London senior program manager.

    That disparity, which Garay described as institutional and fixable, means there’s a hunger, especially among low-income residents and people of color, for easy and affordable access to vegetables and herbs.

    While the cost of healthy vs. unhealthy food has been studied and debated for years without a clear consensus — one study found a diet rich in fruits and vegetables cost about $1.50 more a day than less healthy diets — Garay said another big obstacle to fresh produce is distance.

    “For many low-income folks without a car in New London, it means a 1- to 3-mile walk to a grocery store and a produce section,” she said. “We hear the term ‘food desert,’ but that implies it’s a natural thing that there are areas where people can’t access healthy food and it’s something we can’t fix.”

    Garay said the term, “food apartheid,” is a more accurate description as it presumes a divide between those with access to abundance and those denied that by way of poverty, lack of education and other institutional obstacles.

    “And for us to help meet the need, that means planting things people in this community, many of which are of Latin or Caribbean descent, tell us they want,” she said.

    Filling a need with public snack beds

    To fill that gap, Garay’s group six years ago began planting public snack beds on leased land throughout the city. The raised wood-slated squares are filled with crops designed to appeal to the taste buds of a diverse community and can be picked, toted home and consumed at no cost to the pickers.

    The idea for the grab-and-go gardens took flight after leasers of several community garden sites noticed pedestrians helping themselves to their crops, misunderstanding the nature of the semi-private garden beds.

    “We opened our first public snack bed site on Broad Street and immediately we’d see parents out there as they waited for their kids at a bus stop picking strawberries and cherry tomatoes,” Garay said. “Part of public health means making healthy food available to residents. So, we started adding more beds.”

    Garay said the snack bed model seems to be somewhat unique to New London.

    “The only other time I heard of these sites was through a podcast talking about Switzerland,” she said.

    On a recent Friday afternoon, Davana Grabel bent over a wooden garden bed on Lincoln Street and slotted beet, radish and spinach seeds into soil shared by strawberry plants.

    “These aren’t just strawberries; they’re the best strawberries that have ever been planted,” said Grabel, FRESH New London’s office manager, pulling out a stack of Popsicle sticks to label the new plantings.

    The Lincoln Street site is one of seven public snack beds in New London, with others located on Mercer, McDonald, Cottage, Broad and Union streets, as well as Montauk Avenue. The gardens feature colorful “Harvest Me” signs in English and Spanish inviting passersby to pluck what they wanted.

    The crop yields vary depending on the time of year and specific garden location, with peppers and kale sprouting at one place and arugula and radishes at another.

    “We want people to have access to food that’s culturally relevant without jumping through hoops,” Grabel said.

    Catering to diverse tastes

    That means planting huacatay, or Peruvian black mint, a key ingredient in a spicy green sauce slathered over steak and potatoes, as well as West Indian pumpkins, black-eyed peas and tomatillos – more than 100 different crops in all.

    “We also plant herbs and flowers traditionally used for medicinal purposes, like basil, lavender and oregano,” Garay said.

    The snack beds are tended by members of FRESH New London staff and New London Youth Affairs workers. The materials – beds, soil and seeds – are paid for with a combination of donations and grant money.

    On Thursday, Matt McCauley ran a weed-whacker around curbs near a public snack garden on Cottage Street that was filled with the sound of bees buzzing around marigold buds and yellow bean stalks.

    McCauley, who spent decades helping build recycling plants around the country, leased an acre of his property to FRESH New London ― for $1 a year ― for use as community garden space years ago.

    “I’m a practical person and I saw an opportunity to give people in the city with no experience of the country a chance to see what the earth can do for them,” he said. “It’s my way of giving back to the community.”

    On Sept. 23, the group, which reclaims urban spaces for use as community green spaces, will host a fundraising walk of its gardens and snack beds with donations going toward garden upkeep and operations.

    Garay said her team is constantly polling the community on what should be planted, whether it’s pigeon peas or collards. But even someone as green-thumbed as Garay still suffers the occasional disappointment.

    “I’ve tried a couple to times to grow recao, or culantro, which is like normal cilantro, but times ten,” she said. “It’s an ingredient used in sofrito sauce, a stable Caribbean and Latin sauce. But I think it just doesn’t get hot enough here to thrive.”

    j.penney@theday.com

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