In Your Neighborhood

West Side community incubator seeks to grow food, build health equity

Sankofa World Market starts up, with promise of local produce, ethnic foods

Photo By Richard Asinof

Sharon Wells, West Elmwood Housing Executive Director, left, and Rachel Newman Greene, director of Partnerships and Community Projects, at the opening of the new community gardening space that is part of the Sankofa Initiative.

By Peter Simon
Posted 4/21/14
The Sankofa initiative in Providence’s West End is the kind of food startup that seeks to create health equity for the community, not just profits for an entrepreneur. The effort, underwritten by the Comprehensive Health Equity and Wellness Center by the R.I. Department of Health, plans to create 10,000 square feet of community gardening space, producing affordable, fresh, healthy locally grown and culturally appropriate food. One of the gardeners, Antoine, was busy planning out his garden of hot peppers and kale, learning about where to find good seeds [from Fedco at the Fertile Underground on Westminster] and good organic fertilizer [Neptune].
How long will it take before the concept that idea that investing and promoting good health is more than just spending money on health care? Instead of paying for hospitals, drugs, health insurance and medical care, why not invest in access to affordable, healthy, locally grown foods? Isn’t that a more innovative idea that launching a series of food industry incubators rewarded by angel and equity investors?

Good, healthy growing techniques – modeled by the Southside Community Land Trust – are the kinds of information that gardeners and growers of all kinds can learn from. It’s not information that you can find out at The Home Depot or at Lowe’s, but it is available online from engaged communities of organic farmers and local growers. Learning how to compost – and learning simple techniques that don’t involve the use of pesticides to protect plants from pets – are the kind of important information that can be easily found and shared.

PROVIDENCE – Under blue skies and bright sunlight, more than 40 neighbors, growers, volunteers and supporters gathered in the West End on April 19 to celebrate the opening of a new community garden on Parade Street, part of the Sankofa initiative launched by West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation.

Sankofa is a Ghanian word that means: “go back and get it.” The newly created “crop” of about 20 raised beds is an effort to use “our traditions to build a stronger West End through healthy foods, economic opportunity and neighbor-to-neighbor relationships,” according to organizers.

Rachel Newman Greene, director of Partnerships and Community Projects at the nationally recognized West Elmwood community development corporation, explained that the vision of the project was to make the West End a healthier place by improving access to healthy food for a low-income population. Greene said that plans are for some 10,000 square feet of community gardens to be developed as a way of “cultivating land, lives and community.”

Beyond growing vegetables, the community gardens look to grow community cohesion as a way to make people healthier.

The initiative is one of nine projects in low-income neighborhoods in Rhode Island funded by the R.I. Department of Health’s Comprehensive Health Equity and Wellness Center, or CHEW, according to Mia Patriarca, the program’s project officer. The goal of the program is to invest in ways to address the root causes of health disparities that make life expectancy shorter for residents of poor neighborhoods. Under CHEW, West Elmwood Housing will receive $100,000 per year for the next three years.

Angela Ankoma, chair of the advisory committee for Sankofa, with her two small children next to her, spoke about her experiences growing up in a refugee family in the West End.

Ankoma talked about the importance of the Sankofa project to her and other families like hers, who are now making the West End their home after being resettled from Africa, Asia, the Middle East – many of whom have been forced to leave their homes and cannot return.

Sen. Juan Pichardo spoke in glowing terms about the effort, although no state funds are being committed to this kind of investment in health outcomes by the R.I. General Assembly.

Several Providence mayoral candidates spoke favorably about the potential positive impact that the CHEW initiative will have on Providence. All the candidates attending said that they were committed to such efforts to help build more healthy places in Providence, using the CHEW funds to leverage other opportunities.

Such new funding opportunities are currently being explored by the city’s office of Sustainability, led by Sheila Dormody, and by the office of Healthy Communities, represented by Ellen Cynar. Both offices were created under Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ leadership.

The event brought to mind an old saying on signage for a bakery on Weybosset Street: “As you ramble through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.”

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