When a Tomato Is More Than It Seems
By: Denaya Shorter
“I’ve never seen so many tomatoes in my life! This is great!” I exclaimed as I explored the grounds at my practicum. I had just joined the Urban Food Systems (UFS) team, a program within Seattle Parks and Recreation that provides access to healthy food and was being introduced to the city’s food production lands. Growing up, “gardens” meant exuberant pollinators, tranquil vibes, and my mom’s most precious roses that we wouldn’t dare even brush up against. Now, gardens have a much deeper meaning to me. Gardens in Seattle, and all over the world, are more than places for pretty flowers. They are sources of one of our most crucial needs: food.
At the time, I thought that so many tomatoes growing in urban spaces was fantastic. It wasn’t until discussions in my Visualizing Urban Communities class that I gained a discerning new perspective. Endless tomatoes are great, but only to a community that eats tomatoes. It wasn’t that I had assumed that everyone would love tomatoes, but rather that I hadn’t considered the cultural relevancy of the foods that were growing and assumed that they were universally common and pertinent. Food is more than a means of nourishment. Food is community and humanity, comfort and culture, and has the ability to unite beyond society’s imposed dividing lines. Food is a right and should be equally and equitably accessible by all. Through my practicum work, I am being exposed to communities that do not view food as a right, but rather as a privilege. They eat what they can, from wherever they can, whenever they can, and have adapted to this as their food system.
During a youth summer program session at a South Seattle community center, the chef-in-residence for UFS prepared lunch made from locally grown organic vegetables harvested from the farm the students had worked on that day: sweet potato, kale, and broccoli soup. A young man, a newcomer to the United States from East Africa, poked at the kale with his fork, exhibiting a puzzled look. He went on to explain that he wasn’t very familiar with this variety of leafy green and was a little apprehensive. In that moment, I was changed. Among the copious amount of other transitions this young man and his family were/are navigating in this new place, even food now had to be redefined.
Through this experience, I am now looking at food production lands through a new lens of cultural responsiveness and inclusivity. I am having conversations surrounding issues of food access and food justice. I am able to recognize a community living in a food desert, where the nearest grocery store may be miles away. I am looking at the land as an opportunity to provide a sense of place for a community that may not always feel at home. I am seeking strategies to ensure that the food being grown on urban food system lands is what the community actually wants and needs. I am seeing the urban landscape through eyes that are not my own.
I look forward to more conversations of environmental justice, specifically addressing food access right here in Seattle. I hope to strategize with communities to ensure equal and equitable food access to underserved communities. The goal should not be to grow an endless amount of tomatoes with the hope of a delighted community. The goal should be to cultivate an endless amount of environmental stewards, with the tools, support, and knowledge to pollinate beyond the garden bed.
Denaya Shorter is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.