Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Americans Shed New Light on Sustainable Urban Agriculture

Every year, thousands of refugees and immigrants arrive in the U.S., in search of a new place to call home. Burlington, Vermont welcomes a significant number of refugee families for resettlement, many of who have lived in refugee camps for years. Among other major adjustments, refugee families often have a hard time getting used to American food, which is most often characterized by highly processed and full of sugar and trans fats, in forms completely foreign to many new Americans.

Years ago, when the first Somali Bantu families started arriving in Vermont, they refused to eat canned food and to this day remain wary of the preserved and the processed- and rightly so. It is unfortunate then that many recent refugees rely on charity programs, like food banks, to feed their families until they find jobs and simply can╒t afford to buy a lot of fresh food, let alone sustainable food. In Burlington, as in other cities all over the U.S., refugee communities in conjunction with non-profit organizations have begun to tackle this problem head on, creating jobs in the process.

The solution? Connecting new Americans to urban garden projects. Many refugees, like the Somali Bantus, come from agricultural traditions and are already accustomed to what we would consider sustainable growing practices. Giving them access to land provides them with the opportunity to grow their own food for their families, establishing a greater sense of self-sufficiency and independence. Many non-profits, like the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project in Lewiston, Maine, educate farmers about how to grow vegetables in a new climate that is very different from what they╒re used to. Through such organizations, the farmers, who are often women, can also get involved in local farmers markets or grocery stores where they can sell their produce and learn how to run their own small businesses.

Giving new Americans the opportunity to start small farms is also a good way for them to integrate into new communities, which can be a difficult process, while maintaining some of their cultural traditions. By the same token, those of us who have lived in the States for a while and are involved in urban gardening projects should see this as an opportunity to learn from those who come from traditional and sustainable farming backgrounds. This is really exciting. The injection of new and diverse farming experience sets the stage for the further development of vibrant and energetic urban farming communities all over the U.S.

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