At the Sankofa Community Garden at the intersection of Susquehanna Street and North Brushton Avenue in Homewood, bright garden beds decorate the space and offer a variety of vegetables, including peppers, zucchini, and cucumbers.
Vikki Jones, the owner of Sankofa, sits at the center of the lot, surrounded by grandchildren and garden volunteers. Jones has made the garden not only an important part of Homewood but also her own family.
“I have two students who’ve been with me for two and three years. I have two new students that are very enthusiastic. I have grandchildren and my intern, and I’ve instilled in my family the importance of this,” said Jones. “So when no one’s here, we’re here.”
She’s describing the mission and collaborative nature of the garden. As food prices skyrocket due to disruptions in the global supply chain and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones said Sankofa has become even more important to the neighborhood. The predominantly Black Pittsburgh community has been severely impacted in recent years by food insecurity.
The garden has been part of the Homewood community since Jones founded it in 2015. The facility offers fresh produce for community members and teaches youth programs focusing on self-sufficiency and food justice. In recent years, the garden has also offered rental bikes and has incorporated a garden designed for children with autism.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Sankofa garden became even more persistent to the community. The garden, which had been self–sufficient for years, was able to distribute fresh produce to Homewood residents while following social distancing procedures.
This produce was crucial to Homewood as food insecurity rose from 20% to 37% during the pandemic, according to a report from the RAND Corporation studying two Black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. The issue of food insecurity isn’t new for Homewood as the community has been facing food injustice for decades. Tamara Dubowitz, a senior policy researcher at RAND, says food insecurity points toward the larger issue at hand.
“Issues of housing, transportation, employment, income and education have been different for Black Americans and for white Americans,” said Dubowitz. “It’s all related to access to resources. And this is very much what food insecurity implies.”
Homewood hasn’t had a grocery store in more than 40 years, and few local stores offer fresh food. At the same time, many residents don’t have access to transportation to travel outside the area for food.
To address these racial disparities, Dibowitz emphasized the importance of using the appropriate language.
“Food apartheid is the language really being pushed by food justice leaders, really to remind us that these areas that don’t have access to healthy foods have not been created naturally. They’ve been created by policies,” said Dubowitz.
At the garden, Vikki Jones has made the topics of food injustice and food insecurity an important part of the educational programs there.
“Systemic racism is alive and well in the food system, and it’s an uphill battle, but it’s a battle that we are going to be consciously a part of and win,” said Jones.
Recent inflation had made the battle against food insecurity even more difficult for Homewood residents. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, vegetable and fruit prices have increased by 8.1%, making the little produce available difficult to afford. According to the Washington Post, bananas went from $10 per case to $12.30 in just two weeks. The rising costs come as many food assistance programs end their COVID-19 benefits.
“Inflation and the pandemic caused us to really see that our community needs food assistance, not just SNAP, but we need food assistance in a constant and calculated effort,” said Jones. “Not randomly saying, ‘Here’s some food books. Or, here’s some food stamps.’”
At the garden, many of the programs taught by volunteers and Jones focus on community solutions that offer long-term results. Capricia Williams, an intern at the garden from Penn State, said she enjoys giving out gardening tools to neighbors, teaching gardening classes and taking Sankofa’s produce to local farmers markets.
“I believe that we really help with food insecurity by providing fresh produce, teaching our community members how to grow their own food, giving them resources, whether it’s soil, seeds, whatever they need, and really contributing, especially after the onset of COVID -19,” said Williams.
The garden has also become a place to learn about Black history that isn’t defined by enslavement.
“We have to redefine black history on this property, and we give our young people a wealth of information regarding black inventors and black contributors to society,” Jones said.
As the garden continues to grow, Jones said she’s glad to be a bright corner in her community.
“When you see a bunch of abandoned buildings, it’s very depressing. It’s very discouraging,” said Jones. “But when you go by and see a garden that’s full of life, you kind of take a good, deep breath and say things aren’t as bad as they seem.”
The garden also hosts the Homewood Farmers Market every Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm