It’s obvious that Tricycle Gardens is the beating heart of Richmond, Virginia’s sustainable food movement. The 501c(3) touches every area of the local food system. Community gardens rise up out of vacant lots. Teachers appear at schools and community centers to teach kids about gardening and eating veggies, and classes on gardening and food preservation for adults are held regularly. Potlucks bring Richmonders together to eat local, seasonal produce. The success stories are numerous, with many more to come. So how and why has Tricycle Gardens succeeded in a city whose history and social landscape provide significant obstacles to progress in food justice?
To answer this question, let’s look at one their most successful projects involving a long-term partnership with the Neighborhood Resource Center (NRC), a community center serving a lower-income neighborhood. They offer after-school, preschool and adult education programs and Tricycle Gardens helped them design and build a raised-bed learning garden on what had previously been a patch of pavement. Now the NRC wants to use produce from the garden to supply an organic café located within the center and plans are in place to hire café cooks and staff to teach nutrition and use garden produce to provide healthy snacks for NRC kids. The center and the community around it have clearly made the garden its own while Tricycle Gardens maintains a presence through a weekly after-school gardening class for both children and adults, led by Allison Mesnard, their resident horticulturist.
Tricycle Gardens employs its staff and volunteer force to collaborate with communities all over Richmond, enabling gardeners to grow food and relationships in their own unique ways. “We’re drawing together the energy of the community towards making the entire city a better, friendly, more environmentally aware place through gardening and gatherings related to local food,” says director Lisa Taranto. The organization’s first project was a community garden in the diverse Church Hill neighborhood. Taranto lives in Church Hill, and many of the organization’s efforts focus on that area. Like many parts of Richmond, posh row houses on one block abut dilapidated or vacant buildings on the next, with residents divided on expected ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Though eating local and organic produce is an underlying current, a more explicit goal is to unite these fractured communities, inspiring neighbors to work together to change the surrounding landscape and grow healthy food.
Other ‘plot’ gardens built around Richmond allow tenants to rent growing space. Gardeners benefit from all the positives associated with community gardening – new friendships, advice on growing and cooking vegetables, a greener neighborhood. Stacey Moulds, Tricycle Gardens board member and the Church Hill community garden coordinator says, “Before this garden, we had no gathering place. Now, it’s a place where you see different types of people you wouldn’t normally meet.” All of the plot gardens have long waiting lists of eager gardeners.
Children play an important role in Tricycle Gardens’ efforts to change the city, and several childrens’ programs are taught through Tricycle Gardens in addition to Mesnard’s after-school work at the NRC. The Peter Paul Development Center and the Winchester Greens Neighborhood Center also host learning gardens and invite a Tricycle Gardens staffer to teach on a weekly basis during the summer. Mesnard, who teaches two programs, says “The children’s gardening programs are about experiential learning.” The time she spends with her students may be chaotic, sometimes, but even through play her students develop positive relationships with gardens, nature and fresh vegetables. “We take stuff that we’ve harvested and make a snack out of it,” says Mesnard. “And we always make sun tea with lemon balm, mint and stevia. They totally love stevia.”
Next on the list of Tricycle Gardens accomplishments is the new Kitchen Gardens program, headed by staff member Nellie Appleby. Appleby and a team of volunteers assist individuals in the installation and maintenance of private backyard vegetable gardens. Once again, the goal is to send Richmonders on their way to a do-it-yourself sustainable lifestyle. Appleby digs raised beds and provides as-needed education on organic methods.
So what’s next? Several visits by MacArthur Genius Grant winner Will Allen have galvanized folks to get on board with the urban farming movement. Two urban farms are in the works, with Tricycle Gardens at the helm. One location in north Church Hill, the other on land belonging to the Science Museum of Virginia. “We want them to have substantial earned income,” says Taranto, implying that the farms will ultimately sustain themselves through produce sales. Goals include creation of green-collar jobs and internships as well as ample opportunities for volunteer work and education.
The installation, organization and staffing of two urban farms is a big job, but Tricycle Gardens built some serious momentum in 2009. In October, they held the first annual Harvest Dinner, a fundraising event that melded gala finery with a can-do urban grittiness, creating a welcoming atmosphere that brought in a wide variety of patrons and interested supporters. Speakers included Bev Eggleston of Eco Friendly Foods and Tricycle Gardens’ new board chair William Snyder, a Wall Street Journal writer with an aim to develop urban agriculture in Richmond. And earlier this summer, they welcomed food leaders Michael Pollan and Dr. Marion Nestle to the NRC and Church Hill gardens for a brief tour.
The success of Tricycle Gardens has been in the widespread energy surrounding the organization and its countless projects across the city. As gardens transform from dream to reality, a thriving force of gardeners will continue to collaborate towards Richmond’s transformation into a greener, more sustainable and friendlier place to live. Richmond has a long way to go, but there’s certainly hope as Tricycle Gardens “changes the way we eat, one garden at a time.”