The strawberries are what did it for Yolonda Adams.

One day, while gardening in the City of Promise plot in the 10th and Page neighborhood, a woman walked by, seemingly curious about what Adams was doing among the raised beds, a couple benches and a sun-bleached wooden sunflower whirligig.

With the sweet scent of fresh strawberries wafting through the air, Adams offered a handful of the juicy, summertime fruit to the woman, touting her organic growing methods that really enhance the flavor.

“Oh, no, no,” the woman said. “I don’t eat strawberries. And if I did, I would buy them from the store.”

“Well, if you ever decide you want to try some, please try these,” Adams said to the woman. “I’d love for you to taste them, and if you know anyone in the community who likes them, send them here. These are free, and they’re organic.”

Adams said it’s not her job to judge what people choose to eat or not eat, and it’s not her job to ask why. But in her role as youth engagement and garden coordinator for both the City of Promise and Jackson-Via community gardens through the food justice advocacy nonprofit Cultivate Charlottesville, it is her job to make sure that people have access to fresh and healthy food if they want it. It is her job to let people know that nutritious food is available for them, regardless of any barriers (like cost or proximity to a grocery store) that may typically exist.

Turns out that Adams’ invitation to eat from a community garden is all that woman needed.

A couple weeks later, Adams pulled up and saw the woman bent over near the raised beds closest to the sidewalk, picking strawberries and eating them as she went.

“It was a really satisfying feeling, knowing that she had shifted some of her likes and dislikes,” Adams said. “Now, her preference out of everything growing in here is the strawberries.” Adams said that watching the woman not just eat but enjoy the strawberries, confirmed the importance of community gardens, food access and more.

A handful of freshly picked organic strawberries might not seem like a big deal, but fresh, and especially organic, strawberries — among other nutritious foods — are not available to everyone. Race and class inequities of many kinds, that have been upheld for many years, prevent many people from accessing nutritious food: Cost of food relative to income and other necessary expenses like housing, proximity to a grocery store or market, adequate transportation to and from a food source, time. According to Charlottesville Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit food pantry that is also a distribution branch of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, approximately 1 in 6 city residents (about 17.5 %) experienced food insecurity before the COVID-19 pandemic. That number is likely higher now, but since the pandemic is not quite over, its effects on food insecurity (among other things) are not fully known.

A view of the City of Promise community garden, looking toward Westhaven from Page Street. Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Dexter Auction Credit: Credit: Mike Kropf/Dexter Auction

Adams, like everyone involved with Cultivate Charlottesville, believes that nutritious and delicious food is a basic human right. A right denied to many, particularly people of color and people of low wealth right here in our community.

But there’s opportunity to confirm that right for all people in Charlottesville, and that’s what Cultivate Charlottesville is working toward with its new Food Equity Initiative Policy Platform, shared with the public in March of this year.

The FEI policy platform builds on the work that Cultivate Charlottesville — a nonprofit coalition comprised of City Schoolyard Garden, the Food Justice Network and the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville, all long-running nonprofits in their own right — has been doing since the City Council first passed the Food Equity Initiative in 2018 and began, according to the platform document, “a course of systemic efforts to reshape community health, wealth and belonging through our food system.”

The platform document itself is Cultivate’s response to a City Council request: When Cultivate presented its lengthy and detailed annual report to the City Council in November 2020, the coalition’s co-executive director, Jeanette Abi-Nader, remembers Councilor Michael Payne asking, “OK, what do you want? We need one page with all the policies you want,” in order to consider them.

The document (which is actually seven pages, not one) reflects the input of more than 300 individuals, from students surveyed by their peers about city school lunches to residents of public housing who work in and eat from on-site community gardens and many others. “We’re talking about really representing the voice of the community around equitable food systems,” said Abi-Nader about Cultivate’s robust (and intentional) engagement.

The platform aims to advance systemic change and collective movement toward food equity and food justice via five overarching strategic values: The power to grow (advancing affordable housing and urban agriculture); the right to good food (advancing transportation and neighborhood food access); inspire youth choice (advancing healthy school foods); build community wealth (advancing neighborhood food access and markets); restore earth and climate justice (advancing environmental and climate justice).

For each strategic value, it outlines funding priorities (which at this point totals $615,000, though that’s subject to change), concrete goals and action steps.

Abi-Nader notes that each individual policy still needs some work before it can be presented to the council once again, during the fall’s budget sessions. In the meantime, Cultivate will continue working with various city departments, as well as Charlottesville City Schools, to implement the strategic values however possible.

She wants to see Charlottesville, with its consistent high ranking on the list of U.S. cities with the most restaurants per capita and its proliferation of local farms, grow from a “foodie” city into a “food-E,” or food equity, city. And she’s not alone in that: according to Cultivate’s 2020 impact report, more than 1,200 folks throughout the city are engaged in food access work and food advocacy via the Food Justice Network alone.

That work looked a little different in 2020 and at the beginning of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which deepened the effects of food insecurity for many and broadened it to others, and has only strengthened the argument for why it’s necessary to build and sustain strong and equitable food systems.

Many of Cultivate’s programs have continued throughout the pandemic. All of the schoolyard gardens (there’s one at each public school in town) kept growing, as did the urban farms at the Sixth Street Southeast public housing community and City of Promise in the 10th and Page neighborhood.

Others had to adapt. For instance, market days at Westhaven (right near City of Promise) and other public housing sites, where residents can have their pick of produce freshly plucked from the community gardens and urban farms, became bag drop-off days instead, said Richard Morris, Cultivate’s co-executive director and farm and foodroots director. It wasn’t the same as watching kids taste different kinds of peppers and watermelons — or strawberries — for the first time or exchanging kale and collards preparation tips with some of the more experienced neighborhood cooks or from people who’ve moved to town from different countries with different food traditions, said Morris, but he’s happy they got food in mouths.

Cultivate also assumed coordination efforts among many groups to try to get as much healthy food as possible to as many folks as possible. Workers and volunteers implemented a text service where someone could text a number, put in their address and get an automated response with the addresses and hours of operation for the nearest food banks. They put together a food calendar with food bank information and other resources in English and Spanish and put it out all over social media, radio stations and more. They established equitable principles for the World Central Kitchen and Frontline Foods effort. They helped pack and distribute meals for the children and families who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch in city schools.

While some of those responsibilities are shifting as the pandemic evolves, said Abi-Nader, the collective has learned a lot. Abi-Nader worries that some of the feedback that helped create the FEI policy platform is no longer relevant in the still-rippling wake of COVID-19, that families and individuals who were already stressed about food are now even more so, and that they might need different needs.

Over the summer, she said, Cultivate’s various groups will continue listening to the communities they serve, as they always have. The work of food justice, of food equity, is “very iterative,” said Abi-Nader. “It’s not like you ask once and then move on.” In fact, having to ask again can be a good thing, if that means the needle’s been moved, she said.

“As an organization, when we say we center community voice; that’s really important,” said Abi-Nader. “Even if it meant we were shifting from their programs that we designed, or even the food focus, we’re still putting community at the center and what their needs are in that moment.”

While Cultivate turned some of its attention toward equitable emergency food response over the past year, it will be re-focusing its efforts on advocating for equitable food systems. Abi-Nader hopes the broader community will do the same.

“There was such an outpouring of emergency food response” throughout 2020 and into 2021, said Abi-Nader. “Everyone wanted to donate money that they knew would go directly to give food to people. I think that speaks to our colonization of charity. It’s very easy in our country to promote charity where you see an immediate response: You give someone a meal, they are fed. That’s a very rewarding type of philanthropy. That was definitely needed over this past year, and then we responded to that. But the concern is that it then becomes the norm, and one of the reasons why we started the Food Justice Network is because” after dozens of food-based charity of organizations operating in town for decades, “the needle on the percent of people who are hungry hasn’t changed over the past decades. We [as a community] are providing temporary solutions.

“One of our big concerns is making sure that even though we were responding with emergency food relief and it was needed, that it does not become the norm,” said Abi-Nader. “I think that’s still a concern with this Food Equity Initiative. It’s not that immediate response. It’s a long-term movement toward change, toward systems change. I think it’s harder for people to feel rewarded. It’s a harder philanthropy to push.”

Plus, she said, there’s a big difference between healthy food and junk food, not just nutritionally, but cost-wise. Unhealthy or bad-for-you food typically costs less than healthful foods, and because it’s more bang for the buck, that’s what folks tend to donate to food banks (though she knows food banks are working to change that).

So by asking the City Council to adopt these policies, which push for food systems changes at the local government level rather than relying on charity and philanthropy, is fuel for moving toward food equity in a meaningful, real way.

Richard Morris, co-executive director of Cultivate Charlottesville and the organization’s farm and foodroots director, stands in the Sixth Street garden, which is in its final growing season. After the fall, the land will be used to build more public housing, a decision made by the community’s residents. Morris, alongside members of the Urban Agriculture Collective farm team, Jenifer Minor, Michael James, and Nikolas Lewis, have worked this garden with residents and volunteers. Photo courtesy subject.

It is perhaps especially important as the literal landscape changes. At one point, the Urban Agriculture Collective had tens of thousands of square feet of garden space at the public housing communities of South First Street and Sixth Street, and at Friendship Court, all in partnership with the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Piedmont Housing Alliance, and behind Region Ten on West Street. But Charlottesville faces a dire housing crisis, a dire affordable housing crisis and, by the end of this year’s harvest season, all of those garden spaces will no longer be for growing.

Residents at South First Street, Sixth Street, and at Friendship Court have been pushing for resident-led redevelopment for many years, and Cultivate has supported their efforts, because, as Abi-Nader and Morris say, housing justice and food justice are very closely tied. No one should have to choose between food and shelter, but many are forced to. And in this case, residents chose to build more housing on the land that grows some of their food.

And so, the Urban Agriculture Collective must find different, but still close by, land to work at the same time as the city is revising its Comprehensive Plan that will include a new future land use map and zoning code that will affect what various parcels of land can and cannot be used for. Not that they need a ton of space, said Morris, who grins from ear to ear when talking about how more than 100 pounds of sweet potatoes can grow in an area of land the size of an elevator, about how the long, green onion tops that stick out of the soil are differently delicious, but just as tasty, as the vegetable itself.

Growing food in the city need not be the work of professional farmers or master gardeners, said Morris. It’s something everyone in the community can do, as long as they have the resources, which, in this community, those resources — particularly time and land — are hard to come by for most, impossible for many.

But sowing and growing food equity (of which growing food in the city is a small part) does need to be the work of the entire community.

“We’re talking publicly about this policy platform because we want to hear what people have to say,” said Morris. “This is not us creating something to take to the community. This is us in partnership with the community to create something that benefits us all. … It’s all about getting people to see the value, and the value not just to others but to themselves, that helps people, organizations, communities, to grow in the same direction. We want Charlottesville to be a community that shows it cares about all of its people.”

The Food Equity Initiative Policy Platform could help, if it receives support from the City Council and the community. The work is already happening on the ground: Yolonda Adams grew up in town but didn’t start gardening or advocating for food justice until she started working with Cultivate a couple years ago. Now, Adams teaches children (including her own) how to tend to a garden, shows them that this food is for them even when some folks act like it’s not. She teaches people about the independence a garden full of fresh fruits and vegetables can offer, particularly to communities of color. She teaches her peers and her elders how to advocate successfully for nutritious meals for themselves and their neighbors. She inspires people who’ve gone their entire lives without eating a strawberry to pick fresh off the plant, savoring the fruits not just of Adams’ labor, but that of the many local hands that dug before hers.

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