Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Love Story, With Lettuce

ANDREW HETHERINGTON (MAKEUP ARTIST: DESHAWN HATCHER); ILLUSTRATIONS BY THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

ANDREW HETHERINGTON (MAKEUP ARTIST: DESHAWN HATCHER); ILLUSTRATIONS BY THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

Raising two kids in the Bronx in 1988, all I could see from my kitchenwindow was an empty lot filled with garbage and abandoned cars. One day I spotted a man carrying a shovel.

“I’m thinking of starting a garden,” he told me.

“That’s great,” I said. “Can I help?” That first spring was like a rebirth: the flowers, the vegetables, the knowledge that we were growing our own food in the Bronx!

The New York Botanical Garden donated fruit trees and perennials. I’ve seen kids grow up in this garden, and today 20 families each have their own plot.

In 1998, the mayor started auctioning off city-owned gardens like ours to developers. That turned me into an activist practically overnight. Some say you can’t fight City Hall, but guess what? Once you learn howthe political system works, you can fight it. That’s how I found my voice, and we saved our garden.

I wanted more for the community, though. Everyone needs fresh food to stay healthy, but when we asked a city agency to help us start a farmers market, the response was laughter: “No. 1, farmers won’t come because it’s too far. No. 2, the Bronx is too dangerous. And No. 3, poor people can’t afford good food.”

Yet the community did want it―we’d done a survey. With the help of a food-justice group called Just Food, we managed to recruit farmers who would come into our neighborhood even though they knew they could make more money elsewhere. That was in 2002, and those farmers―we call them our angels―have been with us for 15 years now. It’s a story of love.

At La Familia Verde farmers market, we sell the sort of specialtyproduce we know the community wants: callaloo, tomatillos, epazote. We know most of our customers by their first names. We say, “If your Social Security check is late, or if you’re waiting for a check to clear, that’s OK. Take some food home―you can pay us next time.” They always do.

Urban gardening has humbled me. Every day, I see people trying to make it through their own personal crises, and I think back to the time when that could have been me. As long as there is poverty and hunger, I’ll never stop trying to make a difference in people’s lives.

WORLD VEGGIES

Specialty produce

callaloo

CALLALOO

Hardy green used in Jamaica

tomatillo

TOMATILLOS

Small, meaty Mexican staples

Papalo

PAPALO

Strong Central American herb

Epazote

EPAZOTE

Traditional Mexican seasoning

―As told to Nancy Matsumoto

Retired physical therapist Karen Washington, 63, is a member of the cooperatively run Rise & Root farm in Chester, New York. 

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