By Sophie Nelson
Photographs by Greta Rybus
A dirty, righteous group is growing food for better lives.
Standing among the vegetable gardens of the East End Community School at the top of Munjoy Hill, the view is of Portland rolled out on the peninsula like a carpet of New England urbanism. From this vantage point, with a sea-salted wind blowing through me, I take in the crooked streets of the city, the solid cubes of its hospitals, the multi-colored row houses and the ornately trimmed buildings of its downtown. To my right I notice the waters of Back Bay have retreated at low tide, leaving a circle of muck flashing silver in the dull light. Cut out of that southwestward view are two figures I take for a father and a daughter. While he is bent down among his plot of plants in the North Street Community garden, the girl strikes a wonderfully childish pose—belly out, blonde hair tangled in the crux of arched back, she stands shaking the dirt off a cluster of perfectly pink radishes.
This father and daughter are part of a growing local food movement in what has historically been the breadbasket of New England. Along with many other individuals and organizations throughout the state, the nonprofit Cultivating Community has made it their goal to bring us back to that more sustainable, more socially equitable and economically vibrant place—planting literal and figurative seeds in Maine’s urban landscapes. They’re ushering in youth leaders, helping New Mainers plant roots, feeding hungry people in Portland and Lewiston with food grown in Portland and Lewiston. They’re helping kids become healthier eaters for the rest of their lives. This past harvest season, photographer Greta Rybus and I went to see what’s grown up around their tremendous efforts.
Although Cultivating Community also helps manage the North Street Community Garden (and all of Portland’s community gardens in fact), today garden educator Laura Mailander is in the plots of the East End Community School, preparing to teach a “garden class” to Ms. Bufano’s fourth grade. In sneakers and a neon green Cultivating Community T-shirt, with her brown hair pulled neatly back in a barrette, she checks a garden bed for root vegetables, mischievously stuffing a couple of carrots in a sparser plot. Mailander grew up in Colorado (“the flat part”) on a corn and wheat farm, and later became an elementary school teacher in Chicago. In many ways her current job—to teach kids about growing and cooking and eating whole food—is a perfect blend of her past experiences. She’s in a city, but a small one, surrounded by nature and a lot of people who care where their food comes from. She’s farming and teaching. Today’s lesson? Plant parts. The blackboard at the top of the tree stump circle says so.
The fourth graders know things I do not. For example: there are six plant parts. As for the debate over tomatoes, it’s been settled by Maureen Mango (the kids have chosen “garden” surnames): they have seeds, and are therefore a fruit. With the terms root, stem, leaf, flower, seed, and fruit hanging in the air, and plastic bowls, pencils, and clipboards in hands, the students set out to make salads of all six plant parts. They dig around in the dirt, feeling for the tops of carrots and the taut skin of ripe tomatoes. Some of the lettuce was recently trimmed for use in the school’s cafeteria, but each kid manages to collect his or her fair share of leafy greens. Chives make for tasty stems, and nasturtiums beautiful, if slightly bitter, flower toppings. Mailander helps the students wash and cut beets, and they proceed to munch away at the gold and magenta discs before dressing even hits the bowl.
Given that Americans eat over 30 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and that kids can be especially wary of good-for-you food in its from-the-ground form, the enthusiasm Ms. Bufano’s fourth graders show for these somewhat clunky salads is special. They know more than most of us what it takes to grow food and have gained a life-long appreciation for process, freshness, nutrition. They’re learning a thing or two (or several) about cooking along with times tables and parts of speech. This is a scene founder Craig Lapine had envisioned from his Ohio classroom in the early 1990s. “The kids I worked with were very savvy and sophisticated when it came to many aspects of modern life—markets, media, technology, and so on,” says Lapine. “But when it came to questions of how we’re actually sustained in this place there were big gaps. And I saw those gaps as contributing to all of us tolerating a world that could be better than it was.”
The School Partnerships program is just one of Cultivating Community’s many youth education efforts. Youth Growers is a hands-on summer job opportunity for working-age teens interested in learning more about farming, community organizing, and social justice work. Before his freshman year of high school, Kidayer Aljubyly became a Youth Grower, and in the summers following, took part in the internship program. Now, in his senior year at Portland High School, he is the manager of the Boyd Street Urban Farm in Portland and the youngest staff member at Cultivating Community.
I meet him after school has let out at the far end of the garden close to the organization’s headquarters. Beneath the stiff brim of his white cap he smiles. “The beans never stop,” he says with a handful of a gnarly green variety. Nearby, a white tent shades a young woman in shorts and a T-shirt, a middle-aged woman in a hijab, and a wide variety of vegetables. Aljubyly tells me that Cultivating Community’s five urban farm stands are another way of getting healthy food in the hands of more Mainers. The program welcomes SNAP and WIC benefits and vegetable incentives, which allow low-income customers to double the value of their benefits.
Aljubyly’s got a gentle way about him. He’s shy but confident, revealing his personality more in gestures than words as he guides me through the gardens. He started farming with his grandmother in Basra, Iraq, growing many of the same vegetables—carrots, cilantro, eggplant, okra—in the hard soil of his home country as he now does off of Portland’s Franklin Street. Moving from Iraq to Louisiana, from Louisiana to Texas, and finally to Maine, Aljubyly felt more connected to his grandmother and his past when he started growing food again. And also more connected to his new home. Looming over the nearby four-lane arterial are the Franklin Towers, a Portland Housing Authority property providing affordable housing for seniors and disabled Mainers. Aljubyly knows Franklin Towers well, since he’s been bringing fresh produce to residents for almost four years. As manager, he helps organize these drop-offs and helps coordinate about 70 CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares culled from the Boyd Street Urban Farm and Cultivating Community’s Turkey Hill Farm. He works with youth growers in the gardens, teaches about organic gardening, and takes part in workshops about the social, economic, and health benefits of local, sustainable farming.
Aljubyly’s favorite vegetable? Eggplant. He suggests lightly frying them, and finishing them off with a dollop of yogurt and a squeeze of lemon. His favorite subjects? phys. ed., sometimes math. Last year, he won his division’s state championship in wrestling. Next year, he plans to attend Southern Maine Community College to study carpentry. When I mention Aljubyly’s name to Laura Mailander she shakes her head and smiles, recalling a cooking demonstration they co-taught just a few days prior. “It was Kidayer who kept all the students in line. And he is not even a year older than some of them.” The youth programs help young Mainers contribute to a more sustainable food system and stronger community, but in addition to learning all kinds of things about farming and food, Aljubly, through Cultivating Community, has fostered a work ethic and leadership skills that will come into play throughout the rest of his life.
In 2009, Lapine saw an opportunity to further expand. By then the inaugural Youth Growers program had been in operation for almost a decade, the organization was growing more food and had the capacity to manage more growing spaces. New American Sustainable Agriculture Project (NASAP) is a community-based agriculture initiative collaborating with immigrants and refugees interested in growing farm businesses. When presented with the opportunity to incorporate NASAP into Cultivating Community, Lapine went for it. “We could engage with the problem of hunger in a deeper way,” he says. “We could invite more people into the circle, including farmers who were arriving in Maine from all over the world.”
I meet director of farmer training Daniel Ungier at the sprawling Packard-Littlefield Farm in Lisbon on a cool September morning, where Cultivating Community leases 30 acres for the NASAP program. Perhaps because so many farmers among the fog-coated fields are brightly dressed, I take note of the subdued colors he wears, and his subdued manner. Omasombo Katuka, a farmer from the Congo with a plot of land at the front of the farm, is more animated as he picks granny-smith green eggplants and answers some of our questions. “For next year, I need more land,” he says to Ungier. Farmers start with about a half-acre of arable land, and are given more depending on their level of involvement and success at area farmers’ markets from Kennebunk to Naples to Damariscotta. NASAP farmers are also given seeds their first year, but are expected to save up in the years following.
Habiba Noor has been farming with Cultivating Community for longer than Katuka, and has more land at the back of the same field. Although her English is limited, she’s friendly in a bashful way, and with the help of an interpreter and all that can be communicated in a shimmering smile, she tells me pieces of her story. Like many of the farmers in Lisbon, she is of Somali Bantu descent.
As with Aljubyly, working hard outside, among familiar (and not-so-familiar) plants, brings a sense of continuity to her life that has endured more than its fair share of displacement. After working as a seamstress for three years in Dallas, Texas, Noor moved to Maine for the opportunity to farm, and has built a successful business in just a few short years.
Today, she’s harvesting African corn, which is popular among the Somali community in Lewiston and can be sold at a profitable dollar an ear (cue: ear-to-ear smile). Noor is navigating Maine’s cultural idiosyncrasies at various farmers markets. In her home country, people tend to go to farmers’ markets for the produce, but that’s not always the case in Maine, where the promise of conversation and apple cider doughnuts often draws a crowd as much as kale or squash. Noor is clearly getting the hang of things, though, thanks in part to the marketing and language courses NASAP offers in addition to farm-focused lectures and workshops. Although eager to get back to work, she takes time to show me around her plot, and she and Ungier discuss methods of covering her crops in anticipation of a frost. Before we part, Noor and Hussein Muktar, the outreach coordinator and interpreter, pull apart the husk of a piece of African corn to reveal to me its hard purple kernels—as hard and purple and tasty when mashed in Maine as they are anywhere.
The father, the daughter, and the radishes. Habiba Noor and her corn. Kidayer Aljubyly, king of Boyd Street Urban Farm, and Ms. Bufano’s fourth-grade class. This Cultivating Community collage of people and produce is more than the sum of its parts—because you can’t say for certain what comes of a kid knocking on his neighbor’s door and looking that neighbor in the eye and saying, “Here, I grew this for you.” Multiply that unknowable amount of goodness by all of the people affected by Cultivating Community in Portland and in Lewiston. Imagine if the whole of Maine grew, and bought, and ate this way more often. Lapine can: “We can, and should, and need to be feeding ourselves within this generation. To do that we’re going to need to save lots of farmland, train lots of farmers, and level the playing field so that local food—which costs us so much less in social and environmental terms, has a price tag that accurately reflects all those savings. So that’s where we’re headed. We have our work cut out for us.”