Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the leadership of residents of various housing communities in making decisions regarding community gardens.
Peering into an aqua plastic container that sat atop a folding table, an older woman paused to ask Richard Morris about its contents.
“What kind of lettuce is this?” she asked, her hand gripping the edge of the container for stability.
“Romaine,” Morris, an urban farmer, replied.
“Oh!” she gasped. “I love romaine!”
Morris handed her two full green heads of it, smiling behind his face mask as the woman thanked him and shuffled to the next bin. Nearby, some of her neighbors had an animated discussion about the legendary Burley Bears football team from Burley High School, Charlottesville’s Black high school during the time of segregation.
There, Morris’ Cultivate Charlottesville colleague, Michael James, readied a large handful of the small red, orange, and yellow tomatoes.
The woman watched them tumble into her bag before telling James, with a twinkle in her eye, that she “could use a few more.” Happy to oblige, James scooped up a second, smaller handful of tomatoes. They spilled into the bag that the woman then carried up to her apartment in Midway Manor, an apartment building for seniors and folks with disabilities whose units are subsidized by the Office of Housing and Urban Development.
She was but one of a dozen or so Midway Manor residents who stopped by the Cultivate Charlottesville market setup that day to get fresh produce at no cost.
During the harvest season, which runs from about June to October, Morris, James, and other folks from Cultivate Charlottesville, a local nonprofit focused on food access, food equity, and food justice, visit six different sites around the area with bins full of fresh produce. They set up folding tables, plastic bins, and cardboard boxes, and folks who attend the little market can take what they want (and leave what they don’t want for someone who does).
All told, they serve about 350 families through these market sites, Morris said.
Most of the food is grown on urban farms throughout the city that are cared for by the residents of the communities where the gardens are located, with assistance from Cultivate Charlottesville employees. People can go to the gardens, which have bounty to offer for more than half the year, and take what they need, when they need it.
But the future of community gardens in Charlottesville — and thus the future of these market days that increase access to fresh produce for those who may otherwise not have it — was recently tossed into question.
For years, residents of these public housing communities as well as area housing advocates, have asked the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority to redevelop their aging homes. Folks have pushed for better conditions at Friendship Court as well. And, as the area’s affordable housing crisis deepens, they asked for more public housing units as well.
In recent years, CRHA, as well as Piedmont Housing Alliance, a local housing nonprofit which owns and operates Friendship Court, agreed and have begun resident-led redevelopment and expansion of various public housing sites throughout town.
In 2019, residents decided that both redevelopment teams would build new units in the fields of Friendship Court and Sixth Street. That way, none of the communities’ residents would have to move out of their homes during demolition and building.
Choosing between keeping the fields for gardens and using the fields for housing is a choice no one should have to make, said Morris, since housing and food are both human rights. But there’s only so much land on those sites. Eventually, land equal to the original amount of garden space will be replaced — Piedmont Housing Alliance has committed to that, and it’s in the CRHA Resident Bill of Rights — but residents and community members are considering other short- and long-term solutions, so that food production can continue throughout redevelopment efforts. Morris currently serves as Co-Executive Director of Farm and Foodroots for Cultivate Charlottesville, but he first got involved with the community gardens in 2018, when he joined the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville (which was folded in to the Cultivate Charlottesville umbrella along with two other programs in 2020). He follows in the footsteps of former UAC director Todd Niemeier, who had decided to take a job with the city’s Office of Human Rights. Knowing that Niemeier was moving on, resident leaders of these housing communities chose to keep UAC thriving and providing fresh produce for the community, to keep the broccoli florets coming until the land would be filled with building foundations. Tami Wright, Karen Waters-Wicks, Joy Johnson, Audrey Oliver, and Janet, along with the UAC Board (made up of residents and other community members) asked City Schoolyard Garden to provide support while they decided on the future of the program. They opted for UAC to become part of what’s now known as Cultivate Charlottesville (City Schoolyard Garden and the Food Justice Network are the other arms of the collective). Over the years, the UAC gardens have provided a lot of growing space. The Friendship Court Garden was about 15,000 square feet and the South First Street garden, around 8,000 square feet. Both stopped functioning as gardens within the past few years to ready the land for redevelopment. Redevelopment at South First Street began in May of this year, and the Friendship Court redevelopment is on the horizon.
And the garden at Sixth Street, which is currently in the final days of its final harvest season, is about 4,400 square feet. (For a number of years, UAC also tended a garden on West Street, behind Region Ten, but that’s more recently been cultivated by refugees and recent immigrants participating in the International Rescue Committee’s New Roots initiative.)
Each year, that land had provided thousands of pounds of food for the community. They’ve
also provided more than food, said Morris.
“They provide spaces and places for primarily people of color who don’t have a lot of spaces and places,” he said. “These were spaces that had the imprint, the blood, sweat, and tears of community.”
Like Morris, Jenifer Minor didn’t like that residents of public housing communities had to choose between housing and food. “They should make both a priority at the same time,” she said.
Minor first got involved with urban farming six years ago, at the Friendship Court garden, and now serves as farm manager for Cultivate Charlottesville. Minor liked being outside all the time, and once she discovered the peacefulness of working in the garden, how “you can work by yourself, get your head clear of thoughts,” she was hooked.
At first, Minor worked in the gardens growing vegetables. But as UAC moved under the Cultivate Charlottesville umbrella, she started working more with children in the garden, showing the next generation how to grow their own food to eat and to share. They’re excited, she said, by the opportunity to plant something and watch it grow. (She noted that the kids also love to play in the mud.)
The kids also love to come out to the market days.
Midway Manor is one of six spots that Cultivate serves with a market day. The others are Crescent Halls (another building for seniors), South First St., Westhaven, CATEC (where students can pick up produce before getting on the bus to go home), and Friendship Court.
Each site is unique, noted Minor, because each caters to a different subset of the community, and holding the Friendship Court market the day after the Midway Manor one, reveals some expected differences, a few surprises, and striking similarities.
For instance, said Morris, the Midway Manor folks tend to have stronger connections to produce, because they’re older and grew up in a time and a culture where preparing food from scratch was the norm. They usually know what they’re looking at and how they’ll fix it in a dish. He’s learned that some of the building’s residents even worked on farms.
But that’s different at Friendship Court, where the folks who step up to the table are often unfamiliar with the offerings.
As soon as the Friendship Court market was set up the first Friday of October, a number of women who’d recently immigrated to the United States, many of them from Afghanistan, were out selecting produce (some of which were new to them), chatting with one another as their children played in the small-ish grassy area tucked into the center of the development.
The Cultivate Charlottesville team brought more aqua bins to the Friendship Court market than to the Midway Manor one (the Friendship Court market day usually has the largest turnout, said Morris), but they were full of similar items: lettuce, kale, collards, red and green jalapeno peppers, yellow squash, cherry tomatoes, bananas, apples, beans, spaghetti squash, potatoes. The Sixth Street garden harvest was supplemented with items from Loaves & Fishes food pantry as well as 4P Foods, two of Cultivate’s community partners.
Once the adults got what they needed for their families, children started approaching the table. “Hi Ms. Rosa!” a little girl rode by on a bicycle and called out to Rosa Key, who was working the market table. “I remember you!”
“I remember you, too! You’re from the garden club,” Key, a Cultivate Charlottesville community advocate, replied.
Another child approached the table and picked up a bunch of deep green collards and started waving them through the air as if they were a fan. Urban Agriculture Collective farm assistant Joanna Currey explained that those were collards, and asked if he’d like to take some home to his family. Instead, he placed them back in the bin.
Yet another little girl walked up and asked for some greens. She took a big bite out of a leaf of lettuce and exclaimed “mmmmm!” as she crunched. She selected a clamshell of cherry tomatoes as well, and asked if she could have a little pumpkin (a green, orange, and white speckled squash), one for herself and one for her sister. Yes, of course.
The Cultivate Charlottesville folks took time to explain to each child what each piece of produce was, asking if they’d eaten it before, if they knew how their family liked to prepare it. A lot of kids recognized Key, Minor, James, Currey, and UAC program assistant Brianna Patten from the garden club and were excited to say hello and show off their knowledge of the crops.
Minor also gave a few children a lesson in not wasting food. If they weren’t going to it eat, they shouldn’t take it, and instead leave it for someone who would eat it.
As things quieted down a bit and the aqua bins emptied, a child who couldn’t have been more than four years old whizzed by on a scooter, his grey sweatpants on backwards. Someone pointed it out, and all the adults at the table paused to laugh sweetly — clearly it wasn’t affecting his fun.
Morris tracked the number of individuals who came through each market, most of whom were selecting food (at no cost) for their families, so that Cultivate and the Urban Agriculture Collective can better measure its reach and, hopefully, its effects.
Numbers can help the nonprofit get more money — in the form of grants and appropriations from City Council — to continue its food production and access efforts.
Monday night, City Council passed a resolution of support for the Food Equity Initiative, headed up by Cultivate Charlottesville, with councilors Sena Magill, Michael Payne and Heather Hill voting yes. Mayor Nikuyah Walker and Lloyd Snook voted no, for the same reason: Walker said that while she supports the work that Cultivate does in the community, she wants to see a clear, fair process for how City Council decides to fund non-city government programs.
The resolution recommends that the city continue funding the Food Equity Initiative through fiscal year 2025 at $155,000 a year. It also recommends that City Council consider setting up a Food Equity Fund (similar to the established Affordable Housing Fund) by routing 2% of the city’s meal tax, every year.
What about city parks?
The loss of the Friendship Court garden after the 2019 harvest season, and now the Sixth Street garden, shows that Charlottesville needs to make a commitment to urban agriculture, said Morris. He believes that community gardens should be permanent fixtures, like city parks.
In fact, Morris has wondered whether some Charlottesville city park land could be used for food production. “Everybody understands the value parks bring to a community, and so, just think of a community garden as the same thing. It’s a green space, and, I would say, we should turn some of these green spaces into greens spaces, where we’re growing food for other people, and for ourselves as well.
“Community gardens don’t have to look like farms that you see out in rural communities where you have acres and acres. There’s just no space for that,” but there’s plenty of space to grow food. One of Morris’ favorite factoids to toss out is that he can grow about 100 pounds of sweet potatoes, a very nutritious food, in a space about the size of an elevator.
“I’m a big dreamer,” said Morris, who on Monday night made a presentation to City Council that mentioned his desire to start a community garden at Washington Park. “But I could see that, if we do this right, and by ‘we’ I mean Charlottesville as a city, if we do this right, it could become a showcase. I could see other people coming from other places to see that this is how you do community gardens that benefit the youth, because you could do workforce training, you could do leadership training, people can learn about where food comes from, learn about food justice.
“And then they can learn how to be activists in their own lives and for the people that they care about, for their communities. There just isn’t a downside that I can see. It’s hard work. It’s hard work. But it’s hard work that’s worth it.” Part of that resolution presented to City Council on Monday requested that council “discuss and consider the Washington Park Urban Garden as a formal City program submitted by Parks and Recreation in the formal Capital Improvement Project proposal process for fiscal year 24.”
Until that happens, the Urban Agriculture Collective arm of Cultivate Charlottesville will once again take over the garden behind Region Ten on West Street, and has already been working an urban farm site at CATEC with the help of the Piedmont Master Gardeners.
And while Morris is excited for what those opportunities will bring, particularly at CATEC, where Morris envisions getting some of the school’s culinary arts students involved with Cultivate by way of cooking demonstrations on market days, it’s difficult to leave behind the longstanding spots like Friendship Court and now Sixth Street.
As things wound down at the last Friendship Court market of the season, Key saw a friend walking through the parking lot and encouraged her to come get some produce. “Come and get you some greens!” she called to anyone who walked by. Mustard greens, collards, kale, and a few potatoes still sat in the aqua bins, ready to complete their journey to kitchen tables.
Minor is hopeful that they can have a solid growing season next year, and an even better one after that. It takes time, after all, to really develop a garden, or farm, into its full potential, she said.
“When people come and get all the vegetables, when they’re all gone, when we take none back,” said Minor, “that’s a successful day for me.”