Refugees nurished by the food they grow—and the opportunities it represents. Fourth in a series.
by Adele Flail
Sunny Saturdays at the Redwood Recreation Center in West Valley are a vision of the American dream, complete with all the clichés of teenagers chasing soccer balls over the crew-cut turf, or kids splashing and shrieking while their parents read in loungers pool-side. But behind the playing fields, at the end of small dirt road, you’ll find a surprisingly bucolic landscape that provides a solution to the very urban problems faced by some of Utah’s newest citizens pursuing their own dream. At the New Roots refugee farm, market days are a rush of harvesting, washing, bunching, and weighing as they hurry to get their produce on to the trucks that will take it to the Horizonte School farm stand, or, on Sundays, to the People’s Market in Jordan Park. Through the labor of the New Roots coordinators, volunteers, and of course, the refugees themselves, the one-and-a-half acre farm’s verdant abundance stands in sharp contrast to the barren and blasted weed-filled lot that stood there only a few years ago.
In the past decade, over 8,000 refugees have sought a home in Utah; 97% of these individuals have settled in Salt Lake County. Nearly four years ago, Refugee Services Liaison Ze Min Xiao was hired by the county to identify the needs of refugees trying to settle into the community, and to develop programming around those needs that would help the refugees bridge the gap between their past and present. Xiao learned from other programs in other states, and came up with the Pathways to Self-Sufficiency program, which includes artisan/ craft and incubator kitchen programs.
In addition, Xiao noticed that many refugees came from agrarian backgrounds, and while the transition from rural to urban living was one more barrier preventing a smooth transplant for the new-comers, but she also saw an opportunity to help the refugees find a niche in their new community while helping them build a better, healthier life.
It may seem surprising that refugees would face issues with food scarcity after re-settling in the United States—the putative land of plenty—but that is precisely the situation for many newly minted American families. Although attempts are made by coordinators at the County Housing Authority to settle refugees in areas with walkable access to stores, it isn’t always possible to avoid placement in some of the USDA “food deserts” that litter the valley— where the poverty-stricken (and thus carless) are a mile or more from a grocery.
Even with ready access to a grocery store, the food landscape can still be tricky to navigate, as the array of ingredients on the shelves often don’t include the “exotic” ingredients that other countries use to prepare their traditional—and nutritious—native fare. The number of unfamiliar choices may also prove overwhelming for those who spent years, sometimes decades, in refugee camps with little control over the sustenance they were offered. Even when familiar ingredients are available, these “exotic” foods are often more expensive, taxing the limited resources of families on food stamps, or individuals who may be the single earner supporting an extended family with a minimum wage job. Faced with this situation, many end up incorporating cheap and easy junk foods into their diets.
New Roots of Utah evolved out of the efforts of Xiao and others to ease initial issues of food access while helping refugees thrive long-term. Started as a partnership between the Salt Lake County and the local office of the International Rescue Committee, with fundraising support from the Utah Refugee Coalition, New Roots of Utah comprises four focus areas: a micro-training farm, neighborhood farm stands, the Food Literacy Project, and community gardening.
Community gardening is the backbone of the program; refugees facing food-scarcity issues can apply for one of the 60 plots available at sites like the 4th East Wasatch Community Garden, Sorenson Unity Garden, Pioneer Craft House, and the Hser Ner Moo Community Center. New Roots provides seeds or plant starts, tools, and the know-how needed to make sure that gardening in Utah’s climate will prove successful; those especially interested can take an eight-week training course that prepares the participating individuals to be sources of knowledge, not only for their own families, but for the wider refugee community on issues of nutrition and food access.
Once gardeners have tended a private plot for a season or two, proving their desire to succeed as gardeners, those looking for the chance to move past simple survival to gainful employment can join the program’s Redwood Road farm site. In its second year, the farm is funded in part by a Refugee Agricultural Parnership Program (RAPP) grant through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to Salt Lake County, and allows about 20 individuals, families, or groups of refugees to access the sapce needed to raise saleable produce. New Roots also provides information on the business aspects of farming to the participating micro-producers, including classes and workshops on USDA Good Agricultural Practices and Good Handling Practices, product display, and marketing—including information about both direct and retail markets.
The farm sells directly to consumers, with stands at the Horizonte School on Saturdays and the People’s Market on Sundays, and the farmers learn how to balance market demands with preserving and educating the community about their own traditions. “Everyone wants potatoes, tomatoes and onions,” notes Grace Henley, the Refugee Agriculture Coordinator at the IRC, and farmers focus on cornering different parts of the market.
Retail markets provide a new avenue for selling produce, and New Roots is currently working on cultivating connections to local ethnic markets, such as the Southeast Market on 900 South: “Our farmers are uniquely suited to fulfill demands of this niche—they know how to grow it, they know how to prepare it. By focusing on very unique, very rare produce, we help them realize that they have an identity as a farmer from, say, Burundi, that it is important to preserve.” And indeed, while the program provides valuable employment training, even in basics such as communicating in English with purchasers, working with currency, and using the register— the core work-ethic and skills come from the farmers themselves: “They might not know how to work on a computer, but they know how to work the land… they know how to do it, they know how to do it better than I know how to do it,” notes Supreet Gill, the New Roots Project Coordinator from the County.
In the near future, New Roots will transition into the control of the IRC; Xiao is optimistic that with their international resources, they will continue to improve the local program, expanding the number of community gardens, and perhaps even making some of the deserts—of the food desert variety, at least— bloom: New Roots plans to work with the city of South Salt Lake to get a refugee-focused garden, and is considering a mobile unit that can transport the farm products directly into the low-income neighborhoods where access to fresh produce is needed most. One of the biggest challenges will be figuring out how to lay the next section in the pipeline, helping refugees transition from community gardener, to small-crop farmer, to a full-fledged agriculturalist working their own land—in some cases, a return to a profession that they practiced in their home country. New Roots is hoping to find an incubator farm plot that will allow farmers access to more land, and allow them the chance to begin paying into the program—still heavily subsidized this would help the farmers get used to thinking about the laws of economics, profit, and cost before transitioning all the way into independent agri-preneurs. However, the RAPP funding is set to end next year, so the next step may have to be taken slowly, hopefully with more support from the community.
The perception of refugees in the larger community can be negative, with popular opinion often catching them up in the same negative stereotypes that are applied to illegal immigrants, but the refugees involved in the New Roots program are enriching the food landscape in Salt Lake City by bringing their produce—and knowledge— to the market. While new would-be farmers learn about growing in Utah’s climate from volunteers, the flow of information goes both ways, as the community is introduced to new varieties of vegetables and new ways of preparing foods—including some surprising revelations about what we might consider weeds: “The Bhutanese cook with bindweed, and the Chad make sauces out of goathead before it goes to seed,” notes Gill.
The micro-grant received from Slow Food Utah earlier this year is being used to support a new Seed Bank project, although the benefits go beyond helping the organization run more smoothly. The program has been passing on seeds and plant starts to its community gardeners and farmers since the beginning, but the online database developed with the funds will let the coordinators track donations and dispersals more accurately and easily. But the Seed Bank infrastructure will also aid the refugees in changing their role within the community. New Roots has two filing cabinets full of seeds donated by farmers and seed companies—but as in the old adage about the difference between beggars and choosers, many of the plants or varieties are unfamiliar to refugees and market-goers alike, and are untested in the Utah climate—it will be up to willing participants to experiment with growing and cooking the veggies, and to return seeds and know-how back to the bank.
Funds have also been used to purchase some of the specialty crops used in traditional cooking by various refugee communities— such as bitter melon, Indian mustard, or Thai eggplants— but in the future, it will be donations of seeds by the refugees rather than seed companies that preserves this heritage: as one group of farmers transitions from “refugee” to established member of the urban-agrarian community, they become, in turn, integral parts of the support that shelters and protects the next wave of immigrants sending out delicate roots into the community.
8th Annual Feast of the Five Senses
In the name of good taste and to support Slow Food Utah’s Micro-grant Fund, eight local, celebrated chefs will use the bounty of Utah’s local food producers and artisans in an evening of food and conviviality to raise funds for Slow Food Utah’s wide range of programs.
Feast makers for 2012 include:
• Kassie Little of Liberty Heights Fresh
• Greg Neville of Lügano
• Ethan Lappe of Café Niche
• Nathan Powers of Bambara
• Phelix Gardner of Finca
• Brian Edwards of the Alta Club
• Amber Billingsley of Vinto
• Romina Rasmussen of Les Madeleines
• Uinta Beer will offer pairings
• Francis Fecteau of Libation LLC will be pairing a wine with each course
8th Annual Feast of Five Senses, Sept. 16, 5:30. Alta Club, 100 E South Temple. $85 ($35 extra for wine pairing). Seating is limited. slowfoodutah.org
Regular readers of CATALYST are aware of the myriad benefits of eating locally, but if you haven’t been sure where to start beyond attending your weekly farmer’s market, we’ve got you covered: For the next year, in partnership with Slow Food Utah, CATALYST will be bringing you info about local resources for eating well. Slow Food Utah is a chapter of the national Slow Food USA organization, itself part of a global grassroots movement that aims at providing food that is, in all ways, better—for the people eating it, for the people growing it, and for the land base it comes from. Thanks to a micro-grant program sponsored by Slow Food Utah, locally focused projects that increase biodiversity, provide access to more healthful food, or contribute to our community’s knowledge base are springing up on farms, community gardens, and backyards all across Utah. Whether you’re looking to connect with local farmers, or are considering your own farming project, CATALYST will be bringing you profiles of the recent recipients of Slow Food Utah’s micro-grant program to help map out the local farming landscape.