2016-04-28 / Front Page

Collaborative Spirit Makes Community Garden a Reality

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Elevation rendering of the Great Friends Meeting House community garden. The groundbreaking is scheduled for Saturday, May 14. For more information, go to aquidneckcommunitytable.com. 
(Artwork by Kim Salerno, Haven Designs) Elevation rendering of the Great Friends Meeting House community garden. The groundbreaking is scheduled for Saturday, May 14. For more information, go to aquidneckcommunitytable.com. (Artwork by Kim Salerno, Haven Designs) On Saturday, May 14, ground will be broken for a community garden in the historic heart of downtown Newport. Two dozen raised garden plots, four feet by eight, will be placed along Farewell and Marlborough streets, adding a rich, loamy landscape of vegetable garden beds to the broad lawn of the Great Friends Meeting House. Where the two streets meet, the Newport Historical Society has taken two of the plots for the planting of a historically accurate garden.

When the first shovel goes into the ground, it will mark the culmination of a project nearly 10 years in the making. According to Marilyn Warren, executive director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, it is “the realization of a long-standing dream.”

The story of how Newport’s newest community garden came to be involves many steps and multiple perspectives. It evolved from the ongoing dynamics within the island’s vast network of food growers, purveyors, foodies, historians and activists: the Newport Historical Society, which owns the land (and one of the main drivers of the project); the Aquidneck Community Table (ACT, another key player); the MLK Center; a series of Food Summits; a $235,000 grant received a year ago by the Women’s Resource Center and the dedicated legwork of a group of neighborhood residents who live within walking distance of the future garden.

One of the plots has been reserved for the food pantry at the MLKCC. Another will be used by the McKinney Shelter. The rest are available to rent, for $50 a year, explains ACT Project Director Bevan Linsley, to anyone with a green thumb and a respect for food. Renters can do what they want with their vegetables, Linsley adds, but must follow the rules – that the plots must be well-maintained, and they must “grow organically and use not pesticides.” (Aquidneck Community Table, or ACT, is the name given to the merging, earlier this month, of the Aquidneck Growers’ Market, the Island Commons Food Initiative, and Sustainable Aquidneck.)

This is a collective victory, of sorts: Individual groups have gotten what they were aiming for, and in the process everyone wins. Warren feels that from this “humongous collaboration,” the city will get a garden that is greater than the sum of its parts.

For the Newport Historical Society, which has plans to plant a Colonial kitchen garden, it will be an open window into the past. “It will give us an opportunity to talk about what gardening was like in the Colonial era,” explains Executive Director Ruth Taylor, as well as an opportunity to explore “what the past has to teach us about sustainability and cooking.”

For Linsley, gardens are a gift - to the community. “They bring people together across the boundaries that so often divide us,” she says; “they teach children a skill that can build a deep and lifelong sense of self-sufficiency, and beyond all that, they create a place of abundance and solace in this hectic world of ours.” The Meeting House venue, she says, -an iconic piece of property, “is a perfect flagship location [which] will generate more gardens all over the island.”

The victory, however, will be particularly sweet for Warren.

In November of 2014 the Rhode Island Community Food Bank presented a Food Summit at Castle

Hill in Newport. Invited were area food growers, fishermen, and members of the Food Policy Council of New England. The topic of their discussion was “50 by 60.” The goal: figuring out how to ensure that by 2060, 50 percent of all food grown in New England would be sold in New England. “It was a call to the importance of raising our own food – to the importance of sustainability.”

“We broke into small groups,” Warren said, “and there was a lot of food insecurity awareness raising. Everybody needs access to healthy food,” she added. “It needs to be equitable for everyone.”

At Food Summit II last June, there was a galvanizing moment when Lisa Olaynack, a teacher at Thompson Middle School, told the group about the garden she had planted with her “Green Team” students. “She really got people excited about the prospect of working together to create something for the whole community,” said Warren. Linsley says, “It was where the conversation began about finding a place to build Newport’s first community garden.”

What happened next, according to Warren, was a tremendous feat of collaboration. At the third Food Summit, in early April, ACT introduced its interactive food map, which identified where food pantries are located around the island. It also included a food map of where farms and farm stores and farmers markets were located throughout the island. ACT, Warren said, had the experience and facilities to make things happen; things that were out of the reach of others.

Also pivotal was the Woman’s

Resource Center grant for the Health Equity Zone project. Across a spectrum of generations and needs, there was a common refrain. “They wanted to grow food,” says Warren. “They wanted to learn how to cook.” And break bread together. And be within walking distance of it all. Now, she says, they can make that happen.

Linsley says that they are already expecting a waiting list for the garden beds.

Fundraising for the project is ongoing. ACT has just been awarded a Rhode Island Foundation Centennial Grant, and applications have been filed with the Merritt Fund at the Aquidneck Land Trust, the New England Grass Roots Foundation, BankNewport and Newport Fed.

“I am blown away,” Linsley added, “by the response of the community. It has exceeded our expectations.”

“There are not that many cities that collaborate [as we did on this project],” Warren says. “But look at all the stuff coming out. It’s phenomenal.”

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