This is the second part in a series about the New York Restoration Project, an organization committed to providing New Yorkers with equitable access to green space. Read parts one and three.
Community leaders and sisters Yajaira and Carolina Saavedra are revitalizing a Community Garden owned by the Bronx Land Trust. The Bruckner-Mott Haven Community Garden in South Bronx, New York is helping residents reclaim food sovereignty and increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Formed in 1999, the Bronx Land Trust owns and manages 18 community gardens in the Bronx. With the support of New York Restoration Project’s (NYRP) Gardens for the City program, they were able to convert the land from a forgotten dumping ground to thriving public green space.
Jason Sheets, Director of Garden Horticulture & Citywide Greening Projects at NYRP, met with the Saavedra sisters to discuss their goals and arrange funding. “I come out and I listen,” Sheets tells Food Tank. “We’re just a conduit for what the community wants.”
Once the project was established, community members joined in, clearing rubble, building 12 raised planting beds, and putting in nutrient-rich soil. The garden is now full of berries, leafy greens, chiles, tomatoes, cover crops, and pollinator plants.
“I want to make it very clear that we’re not an anomaly in any sense,” says Yajaida. “There’s a lot of skills in this neighborhood. There’s a lot of people who are able and want to grow food, but we need access to land and resources.”
Over 210 million packages of fresh produce move through the nearby Hunts Point Terminal Market each year— but most bypass Mott Haven for delivery in wealthier neighborhoods. Nutrition-related diseases and fresh food access are major community concerns.
According to NYC census data, nearly 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line— more than double the United States average. And health outcomes are worse in the Bronx than in other boroughs: childhood asthma rates are nearly three times higher than the city average, and adult obesity rates are double.
“We’re providing a health-line to people that never have access to fresh, healthy produce,” Carolina tells Food Tank. “These people deserve this community garden, and a lot more.”
The Saavedra sisters cite environmental racism and poor infrastructure as contributors to the inequities. Close proximity to highways and warehouse operations, as well poor air quality and tree coverage, prevent community members from using public land as an agricultural resource. High costs of living resulting in little free time for household earners also play a role in the community’s ability to protect land from new developers. “All of the odds were against this garden,” Carolina tells Food Tank
And despite their progress the Community Garden still struggles with inconsistent trash collection. They are also fighting for access to water at the garden.
But the Saavedra sisters, longtime advocates for food equity, understand the power of food and are committed to maintaining the garden. Their parents own Mexican restaurant and soup kitchen La Morada, which serves hundreds of free meals each day. A Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient, La Morada also distributes fresh produce to residents and operates a group chat demonstrating how to prepare unfamiliar vegetables at home.
Ultimately, Carolina and Yajaida hope the garden will help residents reconnect with the origins of their food. As Oaxacan migrants, they plan to use the garden to honor their agricultural traditions and recognize the legacy of the Lenape tribe, the original inhabitants of the land. Growing food together “feeds into our Native American background and [goal of] rematriation… we have people from the South Bronx working this land and putting in their ancestral knowledge to farm and harvest food,” says Yajaira. “Reclaiming this space as a place to grow food is really something radical.”
Photo courtesy of Jason Sheets of NYRP