NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Ruth Torres is so devoted to her garden that a knee-high cast after foot surgery failed to deter her from planting and tending to it for the past three months.
Her 8- by 4-foot raised bed in the incubator garden off English Street run by New Haven Farms is full of healthy Swiss chard, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, Japanese eggplants and zucchini.
“I have already harvested four pounds of eggplants,” Torres said at a recent tour of the site.
A 2.5 pound zucchini was turned into bread and cookies, while some of it was added to a vegetable lasagna where Torres substituted eggplant for the traditional sheets of pasta.
“I love to garden so much. I don’t like being stuck at the house. I like being out and about,” she said of her routine, even though she worked with the cast on until two weeks ago
Torres is one of 30 families who are participating in the incubator garden, where they have their own plots that help feed an estimated 200 people, said New Haven Farms Executive Director James Jenkins.
Last year, there were 20 such families and next year, 20 more are expected to join the harvest at a separate site at Grand Acres off Clinton Avenue.
The growth of the garden and new ways to help low-income families access healthy foods has been made possible by New Haven Farms’ partnership with the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, the Livable City Initiative and the New Haven Land Trust, among others.
Jenkins said food insecurity, where a family does not have enough food or money to buy food, continues to be a serious issue in New Haven. A 2015 Community Health Needs Assessment done for the Yale New Haven Health System found that 34 percent of residents in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods reported experiencing food insecurity, although that was down from 39 percent in 2012. A total of 52 percent of the Hispanic/Latino residents reported being food insecure.
Jenkins said the Yale School of Public Health’s CARE survey of six New Haven neighborhoods in 2015, showed that Fair Haven residents at 42 percent, had the highest food insecurity in the city.
The foundation, through its Healthy Food Fund, has awarded New Haven Farms $176,000 in grants that began in 2014 and will continue until 2018. The foundation’s mission is to boost access to healthy food.
Some four years ago, New Haven Farms began to work with a wellness program operated by the Fair Haven Community Health Center. Yale Primary Care and the Cornell Scott Hill Health Center also now participate.
The Fair Haven Community Health Center gave patients suffering from chronic health issues, such as diabetes, a “prescription” to participate in education and gardening classes at New Haven Farm’s plot on James Street. The families get to take home a large bag of fresh grown produce every week, have a nutritionist guide them to better health and demonstrate recipes, while there are exercise classes at the nearby John Martinez School. The families at the incubator garden on English Street are graduates of the farm program on James Street, having advanced to learning how to produce food for themselves.
Karen Voci, president of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, got to leave her administrative work behind for a day when she visited the New Haven Farms English Street site.
“New Haven Farms has been really agile about adding different ways for people to get access to healthy fresh food,” Voci said, as she stood next to a greenhouse New Haven Farms put up to grow its own seedlings.
She said the partnership with the Land Trust is a unique one, while the decision to grow seedlings is efficient and supports people who want to grow vegetables in their own backyards.
This year, Jenkins said they also operate a farm stand on Saturdays at the site from 9 a.m. to noon where people can buy food at low prices.
He said they are also looking into an arrangement with a nearby corner store where it would sell the produce left after the farm stand closes weekly, thus eliminating waste and adding food options for the neighborhood.
New Haven Farms manager Jacqueline Maisonpierre said while it was always obvious that the farm helps feed families, she has found that is also helps build communities.
She said they have good relationships with the immediate neighborhood, where residents watch out for the farm.
Maisonpierre said she got a call one night where the neighbors confronted someone apparently stealing food. She said police, who were in the area, counseled the intruder to not do it again and there were no charges.
“For me, it really highlighted the ownership that the community members are taking, because they see the positive things that have come out of the farm,” Maisonpierre said.
Voci said as she travels around New England, she encounters the same phenomenon
“We think it is about food and eventually it is really about building community connections,” Voci said.
“I tell my board members all the time, that the America you see on the news is not what is going on in these community gardens. This is a different way of experiencing this country. It is really inspirational and energizing,” Voci said of the cooperation and bonds developed among the participants.
Maisonpierre said every ethnic group has a culture of gardening, which at New Haven Farms they share with each other.
They may not speak the same language, but communication flourishes around food and gardening, Voci said.
Jenkins said Harvard Pilgrim’s approach to funding is innovative and offers a level of support that encourages them to grow.
“As a young organization, that is a real game-changing commitment and partnership,” Jenkins said.
Voci said the combination of public money, medical resources, philanthropic donations and the sweat equity of the gardeners makes it work.
“It’s a terrific combination,” she said.
As Voci finished up her visit, Gloria Serrano, 60, tended to her plot. She said she has learned better eating habits since participating in the New Haven Farms program and she knows the vegetables she is feeding her family don’t have any chemicals.
Serrano said there are also other benefits.
“When I get my hands into the soil and have that interaction with the plants, it really lifts my spirits,” Serrano said through an interpreter. “It takes away my stress. It is my therapy.”