Child Sunflower

Having the opportunity to be one of the student garden coordinators for the summer of 2012 provided me with exposure to the topic of environmental justice from the perspective of those living in the Evanston and Norwood neighborhoods of Cincinnati. Residents of all income levels were involved in the garden, allowing me to the see that gardening knowledge and enthusiasm does not discriminate based on socioeconomic level.

My experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the natural world. Being outside exposed us to the elements and its connection to growth. I learned how weather effects the growing season, the ways we can utilize rain water as part of a sustainable practice, and how a gardeners’ mood can be changed based on the weather. I was able to see frustrations and triumphs that the weather brings, and that utilizing weather patterns can benefit an entire season.

Being involved with the NEXUS (Norwood Evanston Xavier Urban Sustainability) Community Garden has made me more aware of the issues of environmental justice. My previous exposure to this topic only included reading articles for class and brief discussions with small faith and justice sharing groups. This past summer allowed me to discuss this topic with the NEXUS community. By making myself available and willing to value dialogue throughout my work day, I found that every gardener felt a little differently about environmental justice. Based on the gardeners coming from different places geographically, many had experience with other community gardens around the city, located in a diversity of neighborhoods. Topics between gardeners were discussed that raised questions of ethics, our place in the sustainability movement, and the way we view our low-income communities.

One topic included the opportunities for fresh produce. Available at a local farmers market or grown independently, fresh produce is often limited to affluent neighborhoods. By placing community gardens in low income neighborhoods, people living in poverty may have access to fresh fruits and vegetables leading to proper nutrition. Not consciously providing this access connects to issues of the “deserving”, or people that deserve healthy lifestyles and opportunities for longevity. By advocating for fresh food to be available in low income neighborhoods, like Findlay Market or the NEXUS garden, we may end the ethical question of whether to provide low income communities with healthy options. This benefit is usually available to those who can afford it or who have time to grow their own food.

By giving low income communities the chance to learn about their growing abilities, and creating dialogue around what lifestyle choices provide the healthiest outcomes, they may discover their potential in growing fresh produce, improving their knowledge of best growing practices that make light of their urban location, and ultimately breaking the frequent theme of a lack of nutritional resources that defines many neighborhoods of poverty.

Through my conversations, I learned terminology that raised questions about the lack of available food sources in neighborhoods of poverty. Locations that qualify as “food desserts”, describing neighborhoods without a grocery store or similar food source within a mile radius, are present within Cincinnati. This situation plagues low-income communities nationwide and present questions of ethics, when in conversation with a lack of proper nutrition for people living in poverty. As development in the Over-The-Rhine and other neighborhoods continues, we must consider options for growth that benefit the people already living there.

My ability to raise questions of environmental justice, and participate in conversation with others’ with much more knowledge, has been cultivated by my involvement with the NEXUS community. Not only have I learned practical gardening skills, I have developed an appreciation for nature and its elements, as well as a way of thinking critically about the hobby of gardening as a transformative process for individual relationships, our economies, and our communities. I would encourage you too, to engage in understanding the needs of your communities and develop relationships with community members that fosters growth in your environmental justice knowledge.

~ The Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice would like to thank the Xavier University’s Women of Excellence for helping to make the NEXUS Garden Possible. For more information on the Women of Excellence,  please visit their Facebook Page. ~

Rachel Drotar is a senior Social Work major who’s personality and smile is infectious. As as RA in Brockman Hall, she is committed to her residence and making them feel important to the Xavier community. Her dedication to Xavier and to the Dorothy Day Center for Faith & Justice is inspiring and her presence will be greatly missed.