How these Black farmers find comfort — even ‘freedom’ — at this south Phoenix garden

Every week Shuntrell “Trell” Hayes goes to work in Spaces of Opportunity, a community garden near her home in south Phoenix. On Sundays in high summer, she and her farming group 40 Akers start at 6:30 a.m. with weeding and harvesting. They’re reconstructing the quarter-acre plot for the fall and winter growing season.

Less than a year ago, Hayes wasn’t sure she could distinguish a weed from a crop. 

But prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a job she took at the Desert Botanical Garden got her started in how to grow plants in Phoenix’s climate. The job introduced her to Spaces of Opportunity and the groups that grow food there, primarily ones led by people of color. One of them is Project Roots, a nonprofit founded by former Phoenix Mercury player Bridget Pettis. Like 40 Akers, the nonprofit’s goal is to educate people about growing their own food.

It’s the community Hayes wish she had growing up.

As a child, she used to read the the ingredients on the back of food containers, curious about where her food came from. Now, through her work with 40 Akers and Project Roots, she hopes she can motivate families — especially young people — to take control of what they eat. 

‘A comfortable space’ for Black farmers

Hayes said that many people come from generations of family in which no one grew food. For a first-generation African American grower like herself, it’s daunting to not know where to start.

Black farmers made up 14% of the country’s farmers in 1920. By 2017 they would make up less than 2%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This decline was due, in part, to the USDA’s discriminatory lending practices, according to farmers and historians.

“Having a space like 40 Akers, where it’s run by African Americans and predominantly is that, provides a comfortable space,” Hayes said. “It’s encouraging for them to know that there are more of us out here that are growing foods.” 

For Hayes, it’s also a way for the community to overcome geographical and financial barriers to organic produce — food that’s grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, free of hormones and antibiotics.

Food deserts, areas where residents have limited access to fresh and healthy food, are common in parts of south and west Phoenix, The Arizona Republic previously reported.

Some food justice experts, including farmer Leah Penniman, author of “Farming While Black,” use the term food apartheid, rather than food desert. Unlike a desert, which is naturally occurring, an apartheid is a system of segregation that humans created.

Multiple studies suggest that the price of food, not just accessibility, is important to address when it comes to improving public health. Several organizations that operate out of Spaces of Opportunity, or partner with farmers there, provide produce for free, on a donation basis or at a low cost to people in the community.

As a child Hayes went to Roosevelt Elementary School District, where one-third of children live in families in poverty. There are no Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods grocery stores near her neighborhood, she said. Even so, many people in her community view organic produce and “healthy food” at the grocery store as expensive, Hayes said.

“Being from areas like south Phoenix, it’s simply not affordable, especially for a poor family,” Hayes said. “Having that on the regular is very important. Now we make it so people don’t have to question whether they can feed their families those healthier options. They have it here, on their side of town.”

What is Spaces of Opportunity?

Spaces of Opportunity started in 2017 on vacant land owned by Roosevelt Elementary School District, close to the northwest side of 7th Avenue and Vineyard Road. The 18-acre site, surrounded by residential homes and nearby elementary schools, was once used for growing cotton, The Republic reported.

With the help of community groups under Cultivate South Phoenix and the Desert Botanical Garden, organizers transformed the site into farmland so residents can have access to fresh produce at an affordable price.

For $5 a month, people can rent a small plot of land to grow their own food. Spaces of Opportunity also provides quarter-acre to one acre plots for beginner farms, and operates a farmers market on Saturdays.

For Karla Torres, the community garden is also an outdoor space where she can spend time with her daughters, she told The Republic in April. Torres is the program coordinator for Unlimited Potential, a nonprofit and a Spaces of Opportunity partner.

Torres, who worked at Burger King prior, said it’s easy for busy families, especially single parents, to get into a routine of picking up fast food as a cheap and easy dinner.

“You can see when you go north, there are more farmers markets and resources for families,” Torres said. “Here it’s really hard for people struggling in financial ways.”

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How some are finding ‘freedom’ in the garden

Stephanie Hunter, one of the original farmers at Spaces of Opportunity, started 40 Akers with the mission to educate people about growing food. When Hunter died in April, her friend Jordanne Dempster took over the quarter-acre farm, hoping to carry on Hunter’s mission.

Dempster grew up in southern California where she used to garden flowers with her mother, and her father took care of house plants in their living room. But when she met Hunter, she felt she had a black thumb. She saw Hunter’s massive collard greens and felt terrified she couldn’t grow anything like that.

But Hunter took her under the wing and Dempster learned to grow and harvest watermelons, kale and squash. Dempster, who experienced depression, also found a mental peace.

“A lot of us we need a peaceful space in this very hectic world,” Dempster said. “Peace, that’s a revolution in itself. Stephanie used to say that this freedom she had in gardening, this plot she acquired, was her reparations.”

That’s where the name 40 Akers comes from — the “40 acres and a mule” the federal government promised to give freed slaves, Dempster said.

“That was a big thing too, us being Black women, we’re not really seen in the farming game,” she added.

40 Akers is made up of volunteer farmers, including her partner and co-owner Trell Hayes, who’s also the harvest manager at Project Roots. They provide the fruits and vegetables they grow on a donation basis; anyone can reach out to the group on social media if they want food, and someone from 40 Akers will meet them at the garden.

For the upcoming growing season, they plan to grow romaine, Swiss chard, tomatoes, watermelon, onions, garlic and herbs.

Dempster, who teaches math in Maryvale, said she wants to start a mentorship program in schools once the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

She’s seen children eat okra raw simply because they were excited and proud to eat what they had grown themselves. If children pick up healthy eating habits when they’re young, they can pass these habits on to their families, she said.

“I think that as a people, a lot of us of color, we can talk historically about how we have been marginalized through our food,” Dempster said. “One of the reasons why we’re dying younger, our stress levels are higher, a lot of that have been solved in the garden.”

‘We can have a fresher way of living’

Former WNBA player Bridget Pettis splits her time between Gary, Indiana and Phoenix, where she started Project Roots, a nonprofit that provides meals and teaches people how to grow their own food.

Pettis grew up in east Chicago eating collard greens and picking her own string beans. Her mother would take her to the orchard to pick apples. But as she got older, her diet shifted toward more processed food, she said.

For Pettis, returning to the land and growing her own food started as a way to watch what she was putting into her body. It was also a way to address high blood pressure and other health concerns in her family — both her immediate family and the African American community, which she described as her national family.

“I’m a former athlete,” Pettis said. “It will always matter how I care for my body.”

From 1997 to 2006, Pettis played for the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever. As assistant coach for the Phoenix Mercury, she led the team to two WNBA titles in 2007 and 2009. She’s currently the assistant coach of the Chicago Sky.

Project Roots is a way for people to take power in knowing what they’re putting into their bodies, she said.

The farmers grow crops in Spaces of Opportunity and in Agave Farms in central Phoenix. They then use the food they grow to feed the homeless community from a mobile kitchen service, deliver seasonal produce bags and operate a donation-based stand at the Spaces of Opportunity farmers market.

Pettis hopes people will become more conscious that “real food comes from the earth.”

“We can have a fresher way of living, a deeper understanding of ourselves as people, reconnected with mother earth” Pettis said. “A connection to her to remind us of our humanity.”

Details: Spaces of Opportunity, 1200 W. Vineyard Rd., Phoenix.

  • Project Roots,
  • 40 Akers,

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