It is a muggy Friday morning at Garden of Tomorrow, a community gardening space in south Phoenix. Though it faces a busy thoroughfare, the tranquility of a space teeming with fruiting citrus trees, vibrant sunflowers and fragrant herbs seems to hush the rumble of passing cars.
Young children join those watering the land and sprinkling cayenne pepper to keep pests away. A boy no older than 4 helps turn the soil with a shovel almost as big as he is, using his foot to push it deep into the earth and pull out a heap.
When a downpour of cooling rain starts, those weeding the garden along Broadway Road start a community howl in celebration of needed water.
The garden, along with Spaces of Opportunity, is one of the spaces where Project Roots hosts its new youth classes, one of which Brandon Bates teaches. He said it is important to get his students thinking about the benefits of farming and working the land while working in tandem with the community.
“No one can stop us from planting trees,” he said. “But they can miseducate us to not grow trees.”
Project Roots, a nonprofit that provides gardening space and educates the community about growing food, is offering these classes to youth to reconnect them to the land and where their food comes from.
“Connecting our youth again back to earth and nature and how that can sustain our living, that’s really fundamentally basic,” said Bridget Pettis, co-founder of Project Roots. “I’ve had so many young kids come to us and are just in awe of seeing food come from the ground, like magic was happening in front of them. That’s how disconnected they were.”
For Pettis and co-founder Dionne Williams, a connection with the land and food is not only useful knowledge, but it helps students feel more confident and builds community. The classes are also building blocks for its mission to feed everyone in south Phoenix and encourage all its residents to try growing their own food. In its first courses, students got to take plants home with them to continue tending to them.
“It’s had a huge influence on them,” said Williams. “We don’t have a lot of farmers exposing people to food. Our ultimate goal is to have every family in south Phoenix nourished and feed. Every child who has taken a class goes home with a plant, and that can get them started growing food at home.”
‘God food is better’
Bates found himself working at Garden of Tomorrow when he lost his job due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. He found out about Spaces of Opportunity through a friend and developed an interest in gardening. He spent time in the garden, pulling weeds and developing a repository of knowledge and, he says, developing an understanding of what community really means.
Now he wants to help his students understand that, too.
“We want them to learn why we’re here and what would happen if we were not here,” Bates said. “We try to emphasize that. It may not be something that gets glorified on TV, but this is literally how we eat.”
Having a connection with your food and watching that labor turn into something healthy and rewarding helps anxious and disaffected young people feel grounded, Pettis said. It reminds them that life is for living, that land is just as valuable as a job, and that they don’t have to give in to modern-day pressures.
“It empowers children to say, ‘Hey, you don’t need to worry about the economy or getting that job. You can get land, grow food and support yourself,’” Pettis said. “We sell the job, the careers every day, but we don’t sell the living.”
Pettis wants students to learn how to sustain themselves and navigate the pitfalls of modern food consumption, such as the excessive advertisement of junk food to young people and only seeing food in a box or a package.
“Another thing that we became aware of and what we empower children with is that your health is in the food,” Pettis said. “You don’t have to concern yourself with what processed food gives you when you eat real food. As much as they push McDonald’s in front of you, God food is better.”
‘Starting every day from the root’
South Phoenix has the highest concentration of food deserts in the city. Of the 43 food deserts identified by the city, 18 are fully or partly in south Phoenix. Its concentration of people affected by extreme poverty and its historically underserved communities of color led the city to create a distinctive South Phoenix Food Action Plan within the citywide Food Action Plan released in 2019.
It’s not lost on Pettis that less than 2% of the nation’s farmers are Black. It is something she keeps in mind when teaching students in a predominantly Latino and Black community. She said that while some cultures have been able to preserve their agricultural heritage, many Black Americans have to work to get back the culture that was forcibly taken during slavery.
“My people, the Black community, we were stripped of (our culture),” Pettis said. “So, we’re starting at the root every day.”
Each class, Bates tries to ask questions and encourage discussions that get students thinking. Talking while working together builds relationships and increases connectivity with one another, he said. At the end of class, he asks his students to talk about what they learned.
“They shouldn’t have to go hungry,” Bates said. “They can say, ‘Hey, so if I grow my own food, that can save my mom money?’ We want to open their minds up to that. And at the end of the day, it’s not about money, it’s about community.”
Students feel empowered when they see role models who look like them.
“They see Black and brown faces and they see Black women doing things for the community, giving out food, selling food,” Williams said. “It’s important for them to see that.”
How to attend a class
Classes for children ages 5 to 13 take place on Saturdays from 8-9 a.m. at Spaces of Opportunity, located at 1200 W. Vineyard Road in Phoenix.
Classes for youth ages 14 and older are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7-9 a.m. at Spaces of Opportunity, and on Fridays from 7-9 a.m. at Garden of Tomorrow, located at 1823 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix.
Those looking to enroll their children in a class can do so at projectrootsaz.org/events.
Participants should bring sun protection, water, a hat and gardening gloves.
Megan Taros covers south Phoenix for The Arizona Republic. Have a tip? Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @megataros. Her coverage is supported by Report for America and a grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.
Support local journalism.Subscribe to azcentral.com today.