City News

Community gardens across Houston work to end food deserts’ thirst

Public Health Educator and manager of Houston Community Gardens Joe Icet is standing in front of a soil sifter. This is how the soil is blended and made premium, making the plant resistant to strenuous weather. | Dana C. Jones/The Cougar

There are no fresh food markets or commercial grocery stores in the Third Ward, making it one of the many neighborhoods in Houston and the United States classified as a food desert. When neighborhoods, usually low-income and ethnic ones, lack access to affordable, nutritious and fresh foods, they fall under that classification.

To alleviate the severe lack of fresh foods in the Third Ward, the community garden on Ennis St. help to supply food sources. Thirteen other community gardens are spread out throughout the city in a variety of neighborhoods.

Food security plans

Most people do not think of the fourth largest city in the United States being the greatest hub for agricultural development. That’s where the expertise of Joe Icet, a public health educator who runs the community gardens, comes in handy. Icet is an urban farmer who has been managing numerous garden and agriculture projects over the course of 18 years in the Third and Fifth Wards.

“I’ve been collaborating with some innovators and local agriculture farmers building what I call ‘food security plans’ for urban neighborhoods,” Icet said.

Food insecurity relates to to other facets of wellbeing, such as housing and household economics.

“Food security to me is being able to look out the window and see food growing or walk or bicycle to a food resource,” Icet said.

But in a large part of Houston, that is not the case.

Food desert neighborhoods lack the ability to afford food — income — and the opportunities to get to food — access. If families do not have a vehicle and there is no supermarket within half a mile, it creates more disparity. The USDA created a map of the U.S. showing where food disparity is most prevalent.

Looking only inside the Inner Loop, almost all households in east, including the Third Ward, are more than half a mile away from the nearest supermarket. However, western portions of Houston, including Upper Kirby, Memorial and River Oaks, only have 10 food desert sections. Eastern Houston has more than 30 neighborhoods that may classify as food deserts.

For scale, the USDA equates half a mile in an urban community to 10 miles in a rural one, meaning a city dweller cannot walk five blocks and find a grocery store.

Cabagges among peppers and collard greens are grown in the community garden at the Sunnyside location. | Dana C. Jones/The Cougar

Supporting the gardens

The physical garden and harvesting operations are solely based on volunteers who live in the community. Some come in with prior knowledge, and others want to learn about growing food.

That prior knowledge does come in handy when planning for the weather. The crops remained intact through Harvey, thanks to raised beds that allowed floodwater to drain out, and recent freezing weather. Even though the freeze wasn’t foreseen, the crops sustained because of the mixing of plants in the same soil, and mulch also helped regulate the temperature.

After the harvest, residents of the community receive the food. A lot of senior citizens and impoverished Houstonians benefit from the gardens, but some crops also go to local churches. The gardeners themselves also have access to what they grow.

Crop choices depend on the season and the volunteers’ tastes.  In the summer, tomatoes and cucumbers thrive, while in the spring, kale and peas grow the best. The Northeast location near East Houston grows mustard and spinach, while the West End location on Heights Blvd. and I-10 grows cabbage and onions.

Capitalizing on diversity

Houston’s diversity plays an important role in what kinds of crops are grown in the gardens. The immigrants who use the gardens often grow the food they can’t find in American supermarkets.

According to the Foreign Agricultural Service section of the USDA, the highest producers of world commodities like grain, corn and rice come from Mexico and countries in Africa and Central America. According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than one fifth of Houston metro residents are foreign-born and ranked fifth for largest immigrant population and third for immigrants coming from Mexico and Honduras.

“We have a sizable group of immigrants from Africa who are some of the most skilled farmers in the world,” Icet said. “If we take that diversity and took seed from different cultures, we could create an awesome urban agriculture in the city.”

Immigrants can bring their customs with them and add diversity to the crops into the gardens. In gardens that serve high Spanish-speaking populations, such as the Southwest and Hiram Clarke locations, local farmers grow carrots, radishes, onions and lettuce, which are used frequently in Hispanic dishes.

The African immigrants Icet worked with would spend their Sundays driving around town trying to find the right ingredients for their dishes. When they found the community garden, they ate what they grew.

“You don’t have to teach them how to farm because they already know how,” Icet said. “You just have to create access to land.”

Dreams of an agriculture district

While managing all 14 gardens and doing other agricultural projects on the side, Icet also wants to create opportunities, especially for the youth and the poor, and to educate.

Creating opportunities for people who do not have any is another goal for Icet. He is working with the city of Prairie View to grow specialty crops that are hard to find so the farmers and residents can then sell them at a market for a premium price.

Icet’s end-goal is to build an entire agricultural district. He wants it to run through some of Houston’s most plighted neighborhoods to both make it more beautiful and to bring cultures together.

“It could run through these zip codes that have the highest crime and diseases to create farming opportunities and bring farming back,” he said. “These neighborhoods would be the lifeblood of a food security plan for Houston by reintroducing farming.”

Icet has ideas to utilize the land of non-profit organizations to create more gardens for the community. He thinks that if the entire city gets behind gardening and agriculture, it could surpass all expectations.

“Imagine waking up one day to Houston having food everywhere from an agricultural district, and it’s why everybody came to Houston because it was absolutely incredible and diverse as Houston is,” Icet said. “We can create an opportunity for everybody to come in and bring their seed, and we build a dinner for Houston.”

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1 Comment

  • Joe,

    What a great job you are doing for the Houston Community. Pipe Fitters LU 211 is very of you. Joe is a retired member of LU 211 and still actively working to improve the Houston Community. Thank you Joe

    From the office of
    President of Pipe Fitters LU 211
    John Ace Coody

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