By Aissia Richardson
Reprinted with permission from the author; originally posted on the EPA's Environmental Justice in Action blog. Aissia Richardson and the African American United Fund are members of theHealthy Foods Green Spaces coalition.
For over 31 years, the mission of African American United Fund (AAUF) has been to actively engage Pennsylvania’s African American community to collectively address social, environmental and economic injustices by pooling resources to enhance the quality of life of those most affected by these problems. I created the AAUF African Marketplace Health and Wellness program in 2007 to highlight health disparities in the African American community after my father suffered a stroke and subsequently was diagnosed with heart disease.
After my father had his stroke, he was afraid to leave home. He stopped working, stopped teaching, and stopped exercising. All activities he had previously enjoyed. As a work therapy project, I asked him to help coordinate this new program to educate our family and our community about preventable disease and to connect African American men to traditional health care providers. Sadly, my father lost his battle with heart disease in 2008 and died the day before our first healthy food cooking demonstration took place. As a tribute to him, I vowed to provide access to health care for the poor and in minority communities, to present information about how to maintain health and recognize warning signs of preventable diseases and to work with young men by talking with them early about maintaining their health.
In 2009 I began a community garden on a vacant lot where illegal dumping, prostitution and drug dealing were rampant. After seeing a news clip about gardening at the White House, the Urban Garden Initiative was born and it’s now a meeting space for our community. We’ve hosted film screenings, dance performances, plays, musical productions, farmers markets and an annual health fair. The urban garden is a demonstration model to teach our neighbors how to garden, to grow and distribute produce and to conduct farmers markets with items from small, family owned farms. In addition, the site is used as a job skills training program for adjudicated minors in the Philadelphia Youth Advocate Program and the formerly convicted, in conjunction with X-Offenders for Community Empowerment, as well as other neighborhood re-entry facilities.
In 2010, I started Garden to Plate cooking classes with adjudicated minors which introduced youth to healthy eating options. My personal philosophy is that all men should know how to cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s what I’ve taught my son and what I pass on to youth who regularly eat cheeseburger specials rather than fruits and vegetables. Over 70 young men have graduated from the program. It costs $23,000 to house a prisoner in state facilities. I estimate the gardening and cooking class has saved taxpayers approximately $1,610,000 and only costs $10,000 per year to maintain. The participants raise their grades, get off probation and have marketable skills once they graduate!
If you live in the Philadelphia area and want to start a community garden, the first place to go is the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Garden Tenders program. With a little bit of work and effective programming you too can breathe life into a dead space!
About the author: Aissia Richardson, President, African American United Fund, has volunteered with various organizations that address policy issues over the years. Ms. Richardson is a public education and public transit advocate. She serves as the chair of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority’s 24 member Citizen Advisory Committee and the City of Philadelphia’s appointee to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission Public Participation Taskforce. She is a Pennsylvania native and Philadelphia resident who enjoys connecting organizations to each other to create mutually beneficial partnerships. She has traveled extensively across the Delaware Valley learning about rural, urban and suburban living and working with concerned citizens in the region to ensure their voices are heard when public planning is proposed and implemented.