Three years ago, Jorge Palacios, David Roper and Josh Placeres came together with a shared vision to make a better world for communities of color in Miami. They wanted to create a space where Black and Brown families can access fresh produce and learn how to live a healthy lifestyle.
Borne of their own social justice and community activism, the trio cultivated a food movement by transforming an empty land lot into a lush community garden in the heart of the historically Black Overtown neighborhood. Carrots, eggplant, garlic chive, kale, cranberry hibiscus, papaya, Thai basil, and moringa are in abundance for a community that has limited fresh produce options. The three launched the Green Haven Project in 2019, to expand their efforts.
In partnership with various community-based organizations and local school districts, they’ve broken ground on five community gardens in neighborhoods throughout South Florida that have been designated food deserts. These are areas where the residents have limited access to healthy, affordable food like fresh produce.
My definition of success is where we’ve been in positions to be able to bless others.—Green Haven Project vice president Jorge Palacios
“We’re seeing a lot of success from the amount of food we’ve been able to grow to the different organizations we’re collaborating with now,” Palacios says.
Outside of produce, Green Haven is also offering residents opportunities to learn about the health benefits of the food they’re growing. They host health and food workshops and outdoor fairs like “Plant Day.” They also launched a separate food pantry, providing an assortment of healthy food options. “People recognize our space as a resource hub,” Palacios says.
‘Food deserts are drastic’
Green Haven has built new gardens in food-insecure communities in Miami Gardens, Broward, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They just broke ground on two gardens — a second one in Overtown and another one in Liberty City. The latter garden is in partnership with The Smile Trust, Inc., a nonprofit focused on combating homelessness and food insecurities in communities, to be named Smile Haven.
Green Haven founders also estimate that more than 10,000 people have been fed through their garden and food pantry in the last three years.
There are more than 300 food deserts in South Florida. Palacios says they are the result of many factors, including lack of financial resources and transportation to proper grocery stores.
Community members who use public transportation could travel as far as 10 miles each way just to access healthy, fresh food options.
Prior to the community garden in Overtown, residents only had immediate access to a fast-food restaurant and a trio of small convenience-style grocery stores in the neighborhood. “The food deserts are drastic,” he says. “Everything there is accessible except for fresh produce.”
Food insecurity in South Florida mirrors a struggle for families across the nation. More than one in 10 households nationwide experienced food insecurity in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Communities of colors, specifically Black and Latinx, are disproportionately impacted by the lack of access to quality food. Some 21.7 percent of Black households and 17.2 percent of Hispanic households experienced food insecurity in 2020, USDA figures show. White Americans fell below the national average, with 7.1 percent experiencing food insecurity.
Green Haven’s gardens proved to be a godsend for many families during the pandemic, which disproportionately impacted communities of color from an economic and health standpoint. To expand its offerings, Green Haven partnered with local organizations like Bridge to Hope, a local food bank. That kicked off the Haven’s food pantry. “We saw a lot of momentum,” says Palacios. “The neighborhood recognizes when we have things popping, and that they can just come through, not be shy, and just grab what they need.”
‘Grow food for the people’
Palacios and Roper laid the initial groundwork for the Overtown community garden in early 2018 when they landed an opportunity to take over the empty acre lot in Overtown. The lot formerly housed a two-story low-income housing project known as “the hole.”
Palacios and Roper, who together have been involved in various social justice and community activist work six years prior, were volunteering at the time in an after-school youth program at the Overtown Youth Center. When that program ended, they were asked to visit the lot to see what they could do.
“And as soon as we got there, we both immediately had the same thought – ‘Yo! We gotta get in here and grow some food for the people,” says Palacios. “It’s right in the middle of the neighborhood.”
He had moved to eating a more plant-based diet, and he also expanded his knowledge of food and gardening by volunteering with other local organizations who have a focus on educating underserved communities about nutrition and environmental sustainability. “I wanted to just learn from everyone, and take that knowledge to share it with others,” he said.
In 2018, they took that knowledge and built the current community garden, overcoming logistical challenges like installing an efficient water irrigation system. With Placeres’s backing, they established the nonprofit a year later. The entire process mostly was funded out of their own pockets, with a few donations.
The popularity of the garden grew through word of mouth. And with the growing number of volunteers, they’ve knocked on doors and walked up to residents in the neighborhood to make them aware that fresh produce is available for free. That approach generated excitement among older adults and the youth alike, says Placeres, a hip-hop artist who goes by “Legacy” and serves as a Green Haven board member.
Older folks get it…the value of what’s being grown in the garden and they’ve incorporated that into their lives. The children see us as their mentors…as their big brothers. And little by little, we have won their hearts over to the benefits of gardening and growing your own food. — Josh “Legacy” Placeres
Volunteering for the gardens has been beyond satisfying for volunteer Nadina Liberatore. “It’s funny because I will tell myself when I go to volunteer that I’m going to stay just for an hour, [but] I feel so grounded when I’m there that time just flies by,” says Liberatore, an artist and dancer, who learned about Green Haven via an Instagram post promoting “Plant Day.” “I’ll be there for like four hours.”
Placeres echoes that sentiment and adds: “We’ve had people from [all around the world] come to check out the gardens and to see how they can help.”
‘Not about us, it’s about the people’
In the future, the founders hope to expand their roster of gardens beyond Miami and help underserved communities build their own urban farms. “Our goal is to inspire people to do this themselves,” Placeres says.
It’s not about us. It’s about people doing the necessary work for change — planting a seed, literally and symbolically, and then watching it grow.
For some volunteers like Celina Ishahak, the gardens offered a chance to make a lasting difference amid the global pandemic and summer of 2020. That time swiftly evolved into a call for social activism following the death of George Floyd and the November presidential election.
“I was looking to make a difference for my Black brothers and sisters in a way that kind of moved beyond just a couple hours of protesting or a post on social media,” says Ishahak, who has been volunteering for the last two years. “I was really inspired to think about a long-term solution for healing for my people.”
With help from a friend, Ishahak found that opportunity within a five-minute drive from her Wynwood neighborhood. She heads to the Overtown garden every time she has a chance, describing it as a “healing space” for families.
“The garden is so impactful, because it’s really providing a space for people to come learn something that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives,” says Ishahak who possesses a “green thumb” cultivating her own personal garden.
“It is a place where the children can come and be safe, eat and learn about plants, connect with nature, and escape whatever they’re going through for a couple of hours and be in the sunshine.”