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An old, abandoned plot of land sat empty near the site of a triple homicide involving children in Brownsville, Texas (91% Latino).
Could such a tragic location be transformed into beacon of hope—and health?
The answer was yes, thanks to Dr. Belinda Reininger and others.
The Start of Healthy Changes in Brownsville
A weekly farmers’ market launched in 2008 in Brownsville, Texas.
Dr. Belinda Reininger, assistant professor at the UT School of Public Health and head of the Brownsville Farmers’ Market, did the necessary paperwork to turn the market into a non-profit entity called The Brownsville Wellness Coalition.
The new coalition had a mission to promote both physical activity and healthy food choices in light of rising obesity.
The coalition son learned from local farmers that many of them were getting close to retiring and there were few young farmers in line to keep the crops coming.
Reininger believed the community should learn how to grow fresh fruits and vegetables.
One way to do that is a community garden, a shared space within a community where neighbors can grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables.
The wellness coalition decided that a community garden rooted in low-income downtown Brownsville was a key to improve health and access to healthy food.
How to Grow a Garden
Coalition leader Melissa Delgado helmed the effort to create such a garden.
Together, she, Reininger, and the rest of the coalition began plotting how to make the garden dream a reality.
When the group was brainstorming locations for the new garden, one potential space stood out.
There was a substantial plot of land behind an infamous downtown apartment building owned by the city that had sat in limbo for years after a triple homicide involving children took place on the property.
“The community still lives with it every day,” Delgado said.
One way to heal and promote togetherness in that area, the coalition thought, was to plant the new community garden in the free space behind the building.
“It was such a logical choice, ” Reininger said.
The neighborhood around the land also is among the city’s poorest, and in desperate need of fresh produce options. Additionally, the spot is only a few blocks away from the Brownsville Farmers’ Market, which would encourage people to visit one after the other and provide opportunities for learning from people at both sites.
“The potential for mentoring and building entrepreneurs in a very low-income area made lots of sense to everyone,” Reininger said.
The wellness coalition partnered with the Brownsville Parks and Recreation Department, just as it had for the farmers’ market, to get the ball rolling for the garden.
Building a garden from the ground up requires many different kinds of people.
“Lucky for us,” Reininger said, “one of our farmers is also a retired faculty member [at the School of Public Health] who offered to help the group write a grant to develop community gardens.
With his help, the coalition received grant funds from the Texas Department of Agriculture and was able to use that money to fund the first community garden, as well as more in the future.
Rosie Bustinza, the community president of the garden, began rousing folks’ interest by knocking on doors and asking if residents would be interested in pre-renting a garden plot where they could grow fresh food for their families. There was lots of interest—plots were getting claimed quickly, Delgado said.
One issue that created some tension in the neighborhood during the planning process was whether or not to tear down the abandoned apartment building that sat behind the land for the garden.
A few folks saw it as a historical structure that should be preserved and restored. Others saw the building as a dark reminder that cast a shadow on the already-struggling neighborhood, and pushed for it to be demolished.
If the building was to be torn down, would this hurt the in-progress garden?
The Garden Gets an Official Start
Reininger said that the back-and-forth about what to do with the building continued, but the gardeners wanted to get planting, so the city and coalition planning continued despite not knowing the building’s fate.
Because the city already owned the land, they are responsible for watering, mowing, and maintaining the property. The Brownsville Wellness Coalition is in the process of extending their current MOU with Parks and Rec for the farmers’ market to include the Tres Angeles Community Garden.
In July 2013, the garden, called Tres Angeles in remembrance of the three children killed in the area, officially opened.
With 26 plots available, families can buy a plot in the garden for $15 a year. The money goes to the community garden group, and the members of the community decide how to spend the money collected, be it on new gardening tools, events in the garden, or new plants.
The Garden Surges in Popularity
The community now has a place to grow fresh tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, strawberries, and other delicious fruits and veggies.
Master gardeners from the community, including Delgado, also come out to help plant and teach about gardening and nutrition education. She uses a computer program to continue to create new designs for the garden.
Delgado takes every opportunity to involve the community in the gardening process.
“I made good friends with the hardware company,” Delgado said. “They feel part of this program and this whole thing that’s going on.”
The neighborhood has truly embraced the new garden.
“One of the wonderful things is that it is caddy-corner to the Boys and Girls Club, so the kids have come out here several times and they have a few beds,” Delgado said. “Everybody is coming outside and helping each other with their yards…the families that are in here have truly bonded with each other.”
She hopes neighbors continue to want to help keep the garden thriving for years to come.
Eventually, the city had enough community input to decide to demolish the abandoned building behind the garden. Delgado worked closely with the city to make sure the garden wasn’t hurt in the process. After many discussions, they found a way to demolish the building with little to no damage to the garden—quote a victory when for a few moments the gardeners though they would have to completely rebuild, Delgado said.
The demolition is expected to occur in late 2013.
Bustinza sends text messages to the plot owners to let them know when events are happening in the garden, like work times and learning presentations. Sometimes she even goes knocking on doors to get people to come outside and check out what’s growing.
There are already plans for more gardens in the area, like one adjacent to a new trail system and one with a kayak launching pad.
Delgado, who is in the Tres Angeles garden almost every day, is proud of what they have accomplished.
“Everyone is coming together to help each other. It is truly becoming a community,” she said.
“[The garden is helping to] create new life in a place that had so much death,” Reininger said.
By The Numbers
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.