By Erica Moser
CENTRAL FALLS – Ella Rodriguez, a physical education teacher at The Learning Community, came because the school is trying to build up its first garden this year.
Andrew Cook of Southside Community Land Trust came because the organization recently received a three-year grant from United Way to benefit programming in Central Falls and Pawtucket, and he wanted to see what the needs of the community are.
Others came because they are trying to develop a green thumb, or to further connect with the community.
The City of Central Falls, in partnership with students from Brown University, held its first urban agriculture meeting Monday evening at Progreso Latino. Evan Lehrer, the city's principal planner, hopes it will be the first of many.
“We realize there is a demand for food production in our city and we're ready to address it,” Lehrer said. “As well all know, Central Falls is a very dense environment with very little open space, but we do have ample parks.”
Lehrer worked with Brown University undergraduate students from Professor Dawn King's Urban Agriculture: Localized Food Systems class.
Students Lucas Larson, Christina Warner, Alejandro Subiotto, Anjelica Claxton and Angelica Arellano teamed up to research what Central Falls residents perceive as their greatest needs and what Central Falls could do with its limited open space.
“When we say urban ag[riculture], we're talking about an incredible diversity of things,” Larson said. “It's sort of tied with the local food movement, and the idea that there's all this space in a city that could be used for growing food.”
Urban agriculture includes anything from rooftop farming to hanging baskets, from indoor gardening with hydroponics to outdoor community gardens, from having a tomato plant or two in the backyard to having a chicken or two.
Lehrer's current project is spearheading a municipal community garden, which he said will likely be on Garfield Street.
Vernia Carter of Progreso Latino, coordinator of the only food pantry in Central Falls, at one point gestured out the window and mentioned her vision of seeing baskets hanging from the balconies of the triple-decker homes on Fales Street.
The students presented a slideshow on the benefits and possibilities of urban farming to the group gathered Monday night. Some of the benefits include food security, local economic development, energy conservation and positive psychological effects, the students said.
“There's also a huge social benefit, because everyone can get together to participate,” Subiotto said. “It presents an opportunity for people to get together to learn about the land and learn about the source of their food.”
The group began their research by looking at case studies of cities similar in density or size, Warner said. Then they toured the city with Lehrer.
The Office of Planning and Economic Development and other folks at City Hall “are really interested in addressing the broader issues of food insecurity in the city,” Lehrer said, adding that urban farming would increase the health of Central Falls and allow community members to keep a little more of their income every month.
Central Falls is considered a food desert, with the closest supermarkets – the Market Basket in South Attleboro and Stop & Shop in Providence – each more than three miles away. This problem is exacerbated by the city's relatively low vehicle ownership rates, Lehrer said.
Mario Bueno, executive director of Progreso Latino, commented that the larger markets are in Pawtucket and the smaller ones in Central Falls need to have higher prices to survive.
In terms of growing interest in urban agriculture, Bueno suggested the city have a tradition such as an annual fair.
There are “some homeowners growing food in their yards, but it's little and it's scattered,” Lehrer said, “and I think there can be more of an organized effort around that.” Moreover, barriers remain. “Because this community has had industry, mills [and] factories, and a lot of the houses were built when we didn't have information about lead, we need to test the soil,” Carter said.
She added that Lowe's can support the city's efforts through its community grants.
The meeting also attracted people from hydroponics specialist Acopia Harvest, the Conservation Law Foundation, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Revive the Roots and Calcutt Middle School.
Lehrer encourages those interested in keeping up to date on future meetings and happenings surrounding urban agriculture in Central Falls to like the City of Central Falls, RI Facebook page or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original article published in the 4/14 edition of the Pawtucket Times.