Behind a block of concrete housing in Liberty City, a solution is growing. Colorful murals declare, “This is your community,” bright green leaves emerge from long beds of soil and salsa music blares from a stereo.
The garden is part of Health in the Hood, an organization founded in 2012 that encourages healthy lifestyles in underprivileged communities. Leading the organization is founder and president Asha Loring, who’s no stranger to this line of work. After several years of involvement with AmeriCorps and Public Allies, Loring decided to follow father Marvin Dunn’s footsteps and unite urban farming and community service.
She wrote a few grants, gathered some seeds and revived two of her father’s plant beds to begin her own project. Now, three years later, Health in the Hood is not only providing fresh produce to families who have no access to grocery stores, but it’s also educating the community on healthy lifestyles through incentive-based classes and hands-on involvement.
It may seem like a small garden can’t make a big impact, but providing these services is the first step to breaking down socio-economic walls between communities. The organization is even looking to expand to a large plot of farmland and open a branch in Los Angeles.
The task seems daunting, but according to Loring, the process is an “organic” one.
“Once you start planting things, people will come out and want to know what’s going on, how can they get involved and can I get hired, and it just becomes a learning experience,” Loring said.
Most Miamians probably can’t imagine life without access to a basic grocery store. We can head to Publix, buy our ingredients of choice and compose a healthy meal. But for the people in these communities, it’s not that simple. Transportation, finances and lack of knowledge can all become barriers between low-income families and fresh food. Health in the Hood’s goal is to break those boundaries and make wellness attainable without being overwhelming.
“It’s easier to go to the mom-and-pop grocery store where they’ve got 99 cent cans of Chef Boyardee that are gonna fill up your kids, where a $4 bag of spinach that cooks down to the size of your fist isn’t gonna fill anybody up,” Loring said. “But if you’ve got a couple heads of it growing in your backyard, you’re much more likely to circumvent some of the choices you would make at a grocery store.”
For a child who’s barely exposed to fresh produce, making that hands-on connection with their food is a magical experience.
Loring says one of the most rewarding moments has been watching the children’s eyes light up and fill with excitement as they bite into a freshly picked cucumber for the first time. “It just lifts your soul,” she said.
Aside from free produce, Health in the Hood offers fitness classes, nutrition education and job opportunities for local residents. As Loring explained, you can’t just slap a garden in the middle of a neighborhood and expect change. The success of the mission relies on community involvement and a comprehensive model that encompasses all aspects of healthy living.
The garden is the basis; from there, Health in the Hood collaborates with local foundations like the Miami Children’s Initiative to listen to the community and meet their needs.
The next time you’re perusing the produce options at Publix, you may feel a small sting of guilt. But Loring isn’t pointing fingers – she describes the issue as a shared responsibility.
“It’s on both sides,” she said. “There’s a lack of knowledge coming from the community and a lack of empowerment and that want to be empowered, and there’s not enough people breaking in to provide the services needed.”
Protesting harmful agricultural techniques and boycotting food industry moguls is important, but according to Loring, change needs to start on the opposite end, with teaching uneducated consumers how to navigate around the obstacles.
“You just don’t have to eat all the processed things that are being put in your face because it’s easy and convenient and it’s cheap,” she said. “We have to break that mold. And I think that programs like Health in the Hood are how we do that.”
To get involved, visit healthinthehood.org or email Asha Loring at [email protected].