Since the beginning of my time here at Samaj Pragati Sahayog, I’ve had flashbacks to working with the Agaston Urban Nutrition Initiative* at Penn. Both organizations have the ultimate goal of making sustainable change in the communities they serve. By sustainability, I mean setting up a system where people can self-advocate, teach each other, and eventually phase out the need for the organization itself. With the understanding that community members learn better from each other than outsiders, the SPS Community Media Program runs village screenings of documentaries featuring local people who have profited from building farm ponds or accessing loans through Self Help Groups. The women in SHGs hold leadership positions in the SHG clusters and federations. Similarly, when AUNI runs adult nutrition workshops, the youth employed by AUNI are the ones demonstrate recipes, discuss healthy habits, and explain the key components of a nutritious diet. The food used in these demonstrations is often sourced from the farm where AUNI youth grow food. When I volunteered at Fruit Stand at Huey Elementary School, the students cut fruit and sold it to their peers, learning about healthy snacking, marketing, and math in the process; my job was simply to facilitate.
However, coming as an outsider to help a community is not always well-received. At first, both SPS and AUNI ran into conflict when establishing Kumbaya and Bartram’s Farm**, respectively. When the Neemkheda Sewing Center was first built for women who wanted to make a living sewing patchwork pieces instead of laboring in the fields, men who disapproved of women leaving their homes and tailoring burned it down. After they realized the value and financial benefit of women learning to sew, the men rebuilt the center. In the first growing season after Bartram’s Farm was cleared from a baseball field, boys would come at night to smash watermelons and ruin plants. Yet, once they formed relationships with the farmers, some of these same teens were employed to work at the farm. Initiating programs that empower communities is often the product of trial and error.
It’s not a coincidence that both organizations work to promote my particular interest, food sovereignty. Food sovereignty goes a step further than food security, meaning people should not only have access to enough food to meet their daily caloric intake, but should be able to choose what they eat. They have the right to eat foods that are nutritious and culturally relevant to them.
SPS builds farm ponds, which allow a farmer to collect water for irrigation while raising fish to eat and sell whenever she wishes. The agriculture program encourages farmers to grow nutritious, drought-tolerant crops they can eat, such as millets, sorghum, and pulses (dry grain legumes like black eyed pea, mung bean, chickpea, pigeon pea, and lentils) instead of cotton and soy, which have high water requirements and are not eaten. On a field visit to Deonalya Village, we handed out packets of various bean, squash, and spinach seeds to women at a meeting for the water sharing agreement. These seeds were for the kitchen gardens the women had agreed to start. Because vegetables require too much water, it is not advisable for even the farmers who have access to irrigation to plant them. However, to supplement household nutrition, SPS encourages farmers to grow “kitchen gardens” next to their houses. If a few vegetables are grown where the washing and bathing is done, they are watered with greywater (there is no plumbing, so wastewater is dumped on the ground) and the grower will not need to buy vegetables at the market. In a similar vein, at Bartram’s Farm, there is a community garden where people in the neighborhood can grow produce to eat at home. I’ve also heard plans for students to build home garden box starter kits.
Last summer, a nutritionist named Salome Yesudas came to the Baba Amte Center for People’s Empowerment (the campus where we live) and conducted a traditional and wild foods workshop with local women. She cooked sample dishes made of millets and sorghum, which everyone ate for lunch, just like at an AUNI community event. After lunch, the women were asked to look around the campus for edible plants they recognized. They found twenty-two. Hearing about this reminded me of our wild foods walks at Bartram’s Farm, where we walk around the premises identifying wild edibles and learning their uses. I was amazed to see one of such plants, purslane, growing outside of my room at SPS. I haven’t yet figured out whether it’s one of the wild plants the tribal people eat here, but I plan to ask Sukhram “Kaka” about it when we walk around campus identifying wild foods a few days from now.
Sukhram Maharaj is one of the original villagers to help the SPS founders get established. His father, Ghopal Maharaj, whom we interviewed about traditional foods last week, is one of the oldest inhabitants of Neemkheda. He remembers what uncultivated foods were consumed back when his family cleared the forest and settled here. My interviews here have also reminded me of the farm in Philly. Each summer at Bartram’s Farm, the youth give final presentations about food ways. Their projects are based on interviews with community elders, usually senior citizens who have garden plots at the farm. At the end of last summer, I chaperoned a trip with a handful of students from AUNI’s summer program to North Carolina. On the trip, we visited a group of women who have written a book about uncultivated plants once used by enslaved Africans. They documented these plants to preserve their culture, which is what I’m trying to work on here at SPS.
Of course, there are a multitude of differences between SPS and AUNI—their location, the people they serve, their employees, to begin with. Thus, their approaches to food sovereignty are unique. While AUNI is concerned by Philadelphia’s alarming rate of childhood obesity, SPS holds nutrition camps for mothers and their severely undernourished children. AUNI sends children home from Cooking Crew with recipes higher in nutrients but perhaps lower in calories than a McDonald’s meal; SPS helps implement government schemes to send malnourished children home from school with milk, bananas, and extra grain rations. Another fundamental difference is that AUNI works to bypass the mechanized, corporate U.S. food system to connect people with their food. Children and teens are taught how to grow food; the produce is then used in school programming or sold to the community at an affordable price. People here are farmers, so they are already directly connected to at least some of their food. The rest (rice, oil, salt, sugar) is purchased from government ration shops or the local market (vegetables).
*The Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative is a program under the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Its mission is “to educate, engage and empower youth, university students and the community to promote healthy lifestyles and build a just and sustainable food system.” I volunteered at Huey Elementary School in spring 2015 with the AUNI Fruit Stand and am on the AUNI Student Leadership Team.
** The Farm at Bartram’s Garden, directed by Ty Holmberg and Chris Bolden-Newsome, was part of AUNI until about a month ago. The farm engages the community in promoting food sovereignty. It trains and employs youth from Southwest Philadelphia at the Farm, where 12,000 pounds of food were grown last year to be sold to the community and used in AUNI programming. Last summer, I worked in the farm youth development program, supervising and working alongside the high school interns. In the fall, I volunteered at Bartram’s Farm as part of the Politics of Food ABCS (Academically Based Community Service) course.