Talking About Grow Appalachia– not really “Here to Eternity” but it is going a long way!
One of the best parts of being a Grow Appalachia site is that everyone you talk to about families growing their own food wants to get in on the idea. Since the extended family of Grow Appalachia is happy to have people R & D their ideas (or as community development guru Vaughn Grisham defines it “Rip off and Duplicate”), I thought I’d share some of the places that have been inspired by tales of our coalfields garden project based at the Big Ugly Community Center.
First, the farthest: I spent three weeks in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland this winter visiting Roma (often called gypsies in this country) community development programs.
The Roma population has been one of the most historically persecuted throughout Europe, second only to the Jewish people as targeted by the Nazis and harassed through the communist era, when they were largely forced from their traditional rural communities to cities where they were herded into the grey concrete, nondescript high rise apartment buildings that dominate former Eastern block cities, as if the same creature chewed up historic districts and left, what I came to term the same Soviet droppings.
Under the Soviets there was universal compulsory employment so the displaced families did at least eat. However with the “system change” that came with the fall of the Soviet satellite governments, age old prejudices against Roma people also emerged, and their community went from over 90% employment to 95% unemployment. And, of course, in urban centers, they were no longer able to fall back on the rural food traditions through which they had survived for centuries.
In a small town out of Budapest, Hungary, one activist shared her challenges in gaining access to food for the Roma minority within her community. Their local mayor had twice turned down access to food aid, from both private groups and a national government program, because he did not want to have his town known for having poor people. While she looked for strategies to apply directly to those sources and bypass the government blocked channels, she also longed for ways that families could return to their former food self sufficiency.
A shut down business, bought by Russian capitalists from the government in the 1990s then quickly going bankrupt, had large fields that she hopes to convince the local authorities to allow Roma families to use for community gardens. I told her about Grow Appalachia and the process of testing soil to make sure it is safe, working with people on their garden plans, and collectively ordering seed, fertilizer and shared equipment, and she and her fledgling organizing group are eager to explore the model.
Closer to home, the South Park housing project in Charleston, West Virginia lies up a hollow road on the way to the city dump—only a mile from a flourishing business district, the state’s largest medical complex and two miles from the largest private university in the state, the University of Charleston. But that mile might as well be twenty—there is no reliable public transportation to help people get to jobs that would lift them out of their extreme poverty (all eighty households have annual incomes less than $8000/year) and educational deficits (100% of the children from South Park tested below mastery in math the first year Step by Step began working there). The citizens group we support has recently developed a community slogan “South Park—out of sight but not out of mind.”
Last summer one of the most popular activities at our second annual Summer of Service, a six week summer camp that we host with the faith based Hope Valley Dream Center with support from the Berea College Appalachian Fund, was three raised vegetable beds that children eagerly ran out to check every morning after breakfast. This year, the Big Ugly Creek volunteers trained in the Junior Master Gardener program by our partner West Virginia Statue University, will help our summer interns expand local food lessons at South Park. We are also sending some of the of the 700 tomato plants we raised from our heirloom seeds to South Park and a sister housing project partnership up another winding hollow road on the other side of Charleston.
From Hungarian and Slovakian villages to urban Appalachian housing projects the idea of families supporting each other to grow local foods is powerful and creating a chain of inspiration and self sufficiency that is worldwide.