My 8th grade yearbook superlative was “most likely to become an environmentalist.” It may have been related to my tendency to chide classmates whenever they tossed paper and empty bottles into trash bins; I would promptly shoot them a disappointed look, dig out the item, and put it in the adjacent recycling bin — the epitome of well-meaning but naive.
At the time, I didn’t realize the complexity and intersectionality of the environmental movement. It’s impossible to talk about environmental issues without also discussing economic (in)equity, social (in)justice, and race relations. It’s something I am constantly wrapping my head around, and it’s an ongoing conversation that I relish.
Growing up in New Haven, I was always aware of the intertwining issues of poverty, race, and food insecurity. A drive through the various neighborhoods confirmed it. Tree-lined streets with well-stocked markets transitioned into cracked sidewalks with the occasional corner store. Every weekend, my family drove to the suburbs to shop for our groceries. Without a car, our options would have been much more limited. For many New Haven residents, the lack of options is their daily reality.
It is no accident that from 2011 to 2015, no large food retailers opened supermarkets in New Haven, Hartford, or Bridgeport, despite the overwhelming need in these cities for more access to fresh and healthy produce. New Haven is often called a “food desert”, but the term is a misnomer. A desert is natural, whereas the structural inequities that give rise to food insecurity are intentional.
However, New Haven Farms, with its “prescription for produce” model, is filling this void. During a session of our signature Farm Based Wellness Program, I struck up a conversation with a participant named Sheila. “What’s been your favorite meal so far?” I asked. “I like all of them,” she replied. “When I come to the program, I don’t need to take insulin when I get home.”
One of my favorite books, What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, states, “For an action to be sustainable you must be able to perform it indefinitely.” New Haven Farms embodies this concept. Participants who graduate from the Farm Based Wellness Program can become leaders in the Incubator Garden and share what they’ve learned with their families, friends, and neighbors. They sustain themselves through ongoing community-based action.
I feel very lucky to be part of an organization whose values are fully aligned with my own. Through my coursework at school, internships at Environment Maine and Better Farm, and food-related service trips to New York City and Baltimore, I have become fascinated by food systems and their role in societies. Sustainable development — linking the economy, environment, and society — is key, and the importance of food security in achieving sustainable development cannot be understated.
This year, I will build upon New Haven Farms’ work by assessing community needs and developing additional partnerships. I look forward to engaging with community members working at the forefront of food justice, gaining a deeper understanding of urban food insecurity, and empowering community members to be self-empowered, in the city that I love.
Xuan Du, from New Haven, CT, recently graduated from Colby College with degrees in Environmental Policy and Economics. She is New Haven Farms’ newest CT Food Justice Project AmeriCorps VISTA.
The Connecticut Food Justice AmeriCorps VISTA Project seeks to build the capacity of high-impact organizations focused on community food security and food justice. With VISTA Member support, host organizations commit to empowering their communities to have impact on food-related programs and services, and the food system in Connecticut as a whole. Host sites will share best practices and learn new skills in engaging people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives through participatory decision-making.