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Kaitlin Abrams ’18 helps For the Good build community as they grow good food

By Upstate Institute on July 27, 2017

Kaitlin Abrams ‘18 with Summer Youth Employment Program workers at For the Good’s garden in Utica, NY

For the Good is a community organization based in the heart of Utica, NY. In 2002, C.E.O Cassandra Harris-Lockwood started the nonprofit with the intention of restoring Utica’s Community Action Agency. Since then the organization has grown to accommodate two community gardens opening in 2008, an independent newspaper, and various youth programming such as the Study Buddy Club.

For the Good’s main project, the community gardens, are multi-faceted. One goal of the garden is to increase access to healthy, affordable produce for the food insecure and those at-risk for hunger. According to the Food Access Research Atlas created by the USDA, many areas of Utica qualify as food deserts. This indicates that these spaces lack access to affordable or good-quality fresh food within reasonable traveling distance. In response to this issue, For the Good allows community members the opportunity to volunteer in the garden in exchange for produce. The hope is that working directly with the earth and the food as is grows will make kids more comfortable eating fresh produce they may not be used to due to the typically high cost. Youth are also empowered through learning valuable green skills and self-sufficiency. Overall, garden work promotes a healthy and active lifestyle in a community lacking outdoor activity.

My work this summer is specifically with the community garden program. While each day is a little different, my typical day involves working with young kids in our garden planting vegetables, weeding, mulching, and maintaining crops. For the Good also partners with organizations such as the Utica’s Summer Youth Employment Program which employs young teenagers for 15 hours a week for pay. I work with this group of kids for three hours a day, teaching them how to transform a plot of land from mere weeds to fruitful earth. The work is sweaty and exhausting, but at the end of the day the group looks accomplished and I sense pride in the transformation they have seen from their hard work.

My contribution to this organization at the end of the summer will involve a summary of informal interviews with the volunteers and employees that come through the garden. Over the years, For the Good has seen many faces, some who return to garden, some who stay only for their assigned hours. It is important that we begin to understand what it is that draws people to the garden in the first place, and what keeps them coming back. What is it about working with the earth that is attractive to Utica residents, and what makes people hesitate to get their hands dirty? By working directly with these garden helpers, I hope to gain a better understanding of their views of the organization, and compile this information for better future practice.

As a behavioral neuroscience and women’s studies double major, it may be difficult to see how this work aligns with my studies. But neuroscience and women’s studies both require an understanding of lived experience. I can intellectualize the impact of mental illness and addiction, theorize about gender scripts, and the impacts of poverty on food access all I want in the classroom, but working directly within communities shows the lived impact of these systems on the ground.

Additionally, this work has shown me what non-profit work looks like day-to-day. It has shown me the sometimes difficult funding crises, the stress of organizing and working with a city, and the daily grind of a small organization. But over that, my time here has shown me the power of being connected to the earth and the empowerment that can come from working with your hands and with a community to build something together. My potential future in law will benefit from direct work within the communities I want to aid legally. There are many green thumbs who are struggling with legal issues and court-relegated community service hours who have expressed their difficulties with me while we garden. Lawyers need to remain humble and remember the humanness of everyone who comes through a court of law.

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