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Gardening Initiative Addresses Food Insecurity Amid Pandemic

Man building garden bed
Duron Chavis has been building garden beds - free of charge - for anyone who needs them. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM News)

Since April, Duron Chavis has been building raised garden beds free of charge through his resiliency gardens project. For years, Chavis has worked to increase access to healthy foods in Richmond's underserved neighborhoods, but he says the coronavirus pandemic makes his mission more urgent.

“People are losing their jobs, so more people are on SNAP benefits. Some people are immunocompromised. They might have diabetes or some other chronic ailment that makes them more susceptible to catching [the coronavirus],” Chavis said.

The lack of access to healthy food and groceries is just one of the many systemic inequities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Richmond, Black residents make up more than 70 percent of deaths caused by COVID-19,  though they only represent about half of the city’s population. About 10 percent of Richmond’s population is Latino. They account for 10 percent of coronavirus-related deaths, but nearly 50 percent of cases, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Robert Winn, director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, says several factors contribute to these disparities, including unequal access to food

“The reality is if you have poor groceries around, you have high stress, poor housing, those are the recipes for those people living there having diabetes, hypertension, which become the backdrop for the comorbid diseases of the COVID,” Winn said.

Chavis says viral outbreaks in food processing plants that have slowed down production and increased food prices have also put essential workers at risk.

Black and brown folks that are predominantly the ones that are in these processing plants or on these farms growing, the food that we eat are also in precarious positions where they're catching the brunt force of the pandemic,” he said.

Chavis highlights that the hard-felt impacts of food inequity during the pandemic are not unique to Richmond, as many of his raised beds have also gone to residents in Chesterfield and Henrico. He says where industrial farming has failed, small local farms have responded to the crisis in more effective ways.

In the last three months, Chavis and his team of volunteers have built almost 200 resiliency gardens. His organization, Happily Natural Day, raised nearly $25,000 online, and received a $2,000 grant from the City of Richmond.

Folks are sending us photos of them growing food in their boxes and their kids watering so it’s been really positive in terms of response,” he said.

One of the people who received a raised bed is Markeisha Minor, a mental health professional who lives in Southside Richmond. Minor says her resiliency garden has brought her some peace of mind.

“If the prices of my groceries are rising, my paycheck isn't necessarily rising so we can see where that disconnect may begin to happen,” she said.

Minor now grows her own peppers and tomatoes in her backyard. She says the garden has been a learning experience that has brought her joy during uncertain times.

I just think it’s a very positive and liberating thing to be able to be and live self sufficiently,” Minor said.

Chavis says that notion of self-sufficiency is the key difference between merely providing food access, versus creating real food justice amongst the community. While the raised garden beds have provided relief during the pandemic, he says it’s only a start in creating resiliency and food independence in neighborhoods that have been denied a seat at the table.

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