By Michael Sessa
The Southwest Community Learning Farm is an overgrown oasis—a nearly acre-large anomaly of vibrance born out of compromise. Buried among the weeds is an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables—everything from collard greens to thyme to carrots haphazardly growing against the backdrop of a struggling city. Stray gardening tools and half-eaten tomatoes litter the aisles between the hand-built beds that house most of the plants. The garden, located on Bellevue Ave., is a short trip from the offices of Jubilee Homes, a neighborhood revitalization group based on Syracuse’s southwest side and the owners of the learning farm.
Jubilee Homes began in 1987 to develop housing and has since morphed into a catalyst for economic development and workforce training in the neighborhood. Urban Delights is the organization’s entrepreneurship arm—an agricultural project that gives teenagers and young adults the chance to run a small business. Participants operate farm stands throughout the Southwest side, providing locally-grown produce to residents of neighborhoods where fresh fruits and vegetables are often difficult to find.
Kristina Kirby, Jubilee Home’s fiscal manager and the leader of the Urban Delights program, drives past abandoned lots, boarded houses, and new construction on the short trip from the Jubilee offices to the learning farm. As she drives, Kirby says she wants kids from the neighborhood to love healthy eating just as much as she did when she was growing up.
“My family always had gardens,” she says hopping out of the van. “I love tomatoes—especially cherry tomatoes—so my grandfather every year would get me a plant that I could grow in a pot and just tend to it and grow it and eat my tomatoes.” Inside the garden, she bites into one like an apple.
“I do feel like a plant mom,” she says smiling.
That passion for fresh food—and the sense of purpose and responsibility that comes with producing it—is what Kirby says Urban Delights is all about.
“Previously there was no grocery store in this neighborhood,” she says. “So the area is labeled a food desert. One of the goals of Urban Delights and the learning farm is to not only bring access to fresh, affordable, organically-grown produce, but also to educate people about the benefits.”
Syracuse’s Southwest side didn’t have a major supermarket from 1970 until the construction of a Price Rite in 2016. Residents had to rely on convenience stores for their grocery shopping or find transportation to supermarkets miles away.
Even with the addition of the store, much of the area is still designated a food desert by the Onondaga County Health Department. Corner stores capitalizing on cheap junk food outnumber grocery stores by a margin of 4 to 1. Adult obesity rates range from 25.6 percent in areas closest to supermarkets to a staggering 48.6 percent in areas furthest from them. 34 percent of the area’s population lives in poverty, and 36 percent of households are eligible for SNAP benefits, federal food-purchasing assistance for low and no-income people.
For many living in Syracuse’s Southwest side, fresh produce presents a learning curve.
“You walk past stuff in the grocery store every day, and because you’re not knowledgeable as to how to cook it or what it’s going to taste like, you just walk past it,” Kirby says.
Even among experienced home chefs, she says, swiss chard and fresh herbs are new. Part of the program’s allure is the opportunity to experiment with new flavors and ingredients—trading in community classics like sweet potato pie for healthier alternatives like butternut squash.
Urban Delights isn’t just about healthy eating and expanding access to fresh food. The farm hires teens during the summer through a city-run employment program. They manage farm stands at the downtown farmer’s market, area retirement homes, and the Pioneer Homes Coffee Shop.
“They’re learning the math,” Kirby says. “They’re learning how to count back change, how to properly price things. We try to let them run it themselves.”
The training is about more than running a successful farmstand, Kirby says—it is about learning how to be adaptable and how to recover from a hit. As Kirby weaves through the learning farm, she starts laughing.
“We planted asparagus this year, not realizing that you have to grow it for three years before you can harvest it. Trial and error.”
As she walks through the aisles of overflowing raised beds, the extraordinary amount of unharvested produce takes center stage. Hundreds of yellow cherry tomatoes grow near the corner of the lot, and dozens more are scattered on the ground nearby. Eggplants, string beans, and a variety of peppers are growing too. The learning farm hasn’t been harvested since the start of the school year almost two months ago.
The youth farm stand is a multi-agency initiative, relying heavily on the contributions of local non-profit community organizations and community-minded funders such as foundations, banks, and local businesses. While the city of Syracuse provides a small amount of funding for Urban Delight’s workforce development initiatives, the majority of the program’s financing comes from grants.
When fall rolls around and funding runs out, it is up to Kirby and community volunteers to harvest what’s left and prepare for the off-season, leaving most of the fresh produce to rot on the vine.
Weaving through the now-dilapidated garden, Kirby collects squash and melons in a wet plastic shopping bag she finds under some leaves. She says she does this often in the fall, leaving her work in the office for a few moments of solitude in the garden.
The scene—Kirby tending carefully to Urban Delight’s now-unkempt garden—is a testament to the struggle inherent to such community initiatives. But it is proof of the passion and endurance of the plant moms it takes to lead them.