In Northeast Kansas City, Refugees Put Down New Roots

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How an innovative training garden outside of the oldest public housing project in Kansas is changing the way an entire community eats

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In Kansas City, Kansas, a pioneering agricultural program called the Training Farm at Juniper Gardens is transforming newly resettled refugees into self-sufficient organic farmers. But my cab driver, Jeffery Meyers, wouldn't take me there. He said it didn't exist.

In order to understand Meyers' incredulity, you'll have to hear a tale of two cities. Kansas City, Kansas, lies across the river from its better-known Missouri counterpart, and it's historically faced starker economic challenges. Today, unemployment runs high -- 11.3 percent in January 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Census data from 2010 showed that, in the city's School District 500, 30 percent of children were living in poverty. The house at 852 Freeman Avenue, birthplace of jazz great Charlie Parker, was torn down long ago; modern pilgrims to that address will only find another vacant lot.

For fans of organic farming, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm is one of Kansas City's best-kept secrets.

Locals typically refer to Kansas City, Kansas, in acronymic shorthand -- KCK -- and it's statistically included in the two-million-person metro area that surrounds Missouri's most populous city. But on the Missouri side, residents disagree about whether KCK is really part of their hometown. Some call it Northeast Kansas City, suggesting kinship across state boundaries. Still, I heard others, like Meyers, refer to KCK standoffishly -- "the ghetto," or simply, "up there." To Meyers, the thought of organic vegetables blooming across the river was inconceivable. "Buddy," he told me, "the only garden you're going to find over there is a box in a window."

Five years ago, he would have been right. Juniper Gardens is the oldest public housing project in Kansas, and its name has long been a misnomer. Until recently, nothing much grew in the open land between the development and the Missouri River -- just eight acres of grass strewn with rubble from torn-down buildings.

When I pulled up to the complex in Meyers' cab, his incredulity didn't wane. There was no room for farmland. It's an urban block, long, narrow, and lined with Section 8 apartments. Freight trains hoot nearby, and chartered jets fly overhead toward the Downtown Airport, which is less than a mile east on the opposite riverbank. For a moment, I thought I'd taken down the address wrong. But then, behind the row of squat, beige-and-brown homes, I saw telltale cornstalk fronds waving in the distance.

For fans of organic farming, the Juniper Gardens Training Farm is one of Kansas City's best-kept secrets. It's also a sight to behold. Since 2008, refugee farmers have tended lush plots of vegetables here, using gestures and tentative English to bridge the barriers of their far-flung languages. In the fields, ankle-length Somali sarongs mix with triangular bamboo hats. When I visited, in August, North American staples -- tomatoes and kale and beets -- grew alongside less familiar fare like chin baung (a tangy Burmese sorrel) and Thai eggplants (bright green, no larger than summer grapes). I'd left behind the world of Royals games and big band jazz and Arthur Bryant's Barbeque -- even though the Kansas City skyline loomed, impossibly close, on the horizon.

Rachel Pollock directs New Roots for Refugees, the farm and agricultural training program at Juniper Gardens. It's one of many initiatives run by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, an organization that provides a wide range of services for the region's needy. Since 1956, its staff has helped new refugees find transportation, health care, education, and employment. But for many years a less obvious need went overlooked.

"We resettle 250 to 300 refugees a year," Pollock told me during an interview at the Training Farm. "Most have agricultural experience. They're used to being outside. They miss having daily life revolve around working the land." For many, abandoning the rhythms and rigors of farm-based life is another challenging aspect of their difficult adjustment. "By moving into an apartment complex," Pollock said, "they feel like they've lost touch with everything they used to be."

The Training Farm allows refugees to cultivate a taste of home in an unsettling new environment. Every fall, New Roots chooses 16 refugees based on expressed interest, skill level, and enthusiasm. Beginning in November, the chosen participants take a series of agricultural workshops through Cultivate Kansas City, a non-profit that provides tools and training for aspiring urban farmers. "We teach them everything from pest control to horticulture to beginning marketing," Cathy Bylinowski, who manages Cultivate Kansas City, told me. By springtime, each farmer knows what to plant, how to grow, and ways to make yields pay. Finally, New Roots finds each farmer several CSA members, matching culinary tastes with crop choices.

When the growing season starts, each farmer is assigned a quarter-acre plot. As long as they keep things clean, presentable, and productive, the farmers have complete creative control over their space. This year, the garden's farmers represent Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, and three different ethnicities from Burma -- Burmese, Karen, and Karenni. "Our goal is that every ethnic group we work with is represented in the training garden," Pollock said. "In every case, we want somebody growing vegetables and bringing them back to their community."

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For resettled refugees, this is a triumph. In addition to providing a space for families to work on and learn from the land together, New Roots' gardens produce longed-for flavors. Some distinctive dietary staples are not commercially available in the United States; Without New Roots, Kansas City's refugees from Burma would badly miss the tartness chin baung lends to soups and curries. It can be worth traveling a long way to find these elusive tastes. Pollock told me about a man who made his income bringing newly resettled refugees from Texas -- where they're often placed initially -- to places like Kansas City that have more jobs. Many weeks, he'd stock his van with New Roots' rarer vegetables, knowing how quickly they'd sell back home. But fresh food of any kind is rare in Kansas City, Kansas. The area's only grocery store closed down in 2009, and, were it not for New Roots, no fresh produce would be available within an hour's walk in any direction.

That's why Juniper Gardens' non-refugee population -- most of its residents -- also benefit from the farm's proximity. Now residents of the Oak Grove and Fowler Park neighborhoods can easily buy fresh, organic vegetables at New Roots' Monday market. The farm's economic impact on northeast Kansas City is growing: In 2010, New Roots farmers generated more than $60,000 in revenue and supplied food stamp recipients with $12,525 worth of produce. And thanks to Beans&Greens, a local organization that doubles food stamps, many local families receive $2 worth of produce for every dollar they spend.

Though the sixteen larger plots are reserved for refugee farmers, American-born residents can still get their jeans dirty. Angela Greene, who grew up locally, operates a quarter-acre garden, plot number 17; she uses the space to educate locals on urban farming, environmental issues, and nutrition. The Training Farm also has 30 20x20 community plots for families and individuals who want to start growing themselves. "We have a seed store for them," Pollock told me. "Community gardeners can come and get ten free seed packets and do what they want."

The Green Report

Slowly, the farm is transforming the way people in the neighborhood eat. "For some residents," Pollock said, "it's been so long since they used fresh vegetables that they don't really know how to cook them." So two Juniper Gardens residents, with financial help from Cultivate Kansas City, have formed a "Healthy Eating Team." They do cooking demonstrations each week using vegetables from the farm. "They also hand out recipes and samples at the market," Pollock said. "If people like how it tastes, they can buy the vegetables right there and make it at home."

On the simmering August day I visited, New Roots reached a new milestone. After our interview, Pollock was going to help four Burmese farmers make a bid on a nearby piece of land, over on 49th street. Their bid for 2 ½ acres? $7,000.

Land is cheap in Kansas City, Kansas -- Catholic Charities leases the Training Farm land from the local government free of charge -- and Pollock felt confident they'd get their price. "They'll share a cooler, a tiller, whatever infrastructure they need," she said. It's the first time New Roots "graduates" have made the jump from the training ground on land provided free to buying their own independent farmland. If the bid goes through, the four farmers will likely succeed. They have the knowledge, they have the supplies, and they even have loyal CSA customers in hand.

Image: Joe Fassler.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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