Gardens are the heart of everything Nuestras Raíces does. Children can often be found playing in vegetable patches and in adjacent playgrounds built on land cleared of needles, broken glass, and brush that gave dealers a place to hide their drugs. Grandfathers and fathers, many of whom grew up on farms in Puerto Rico, teach schoolchildren how to grow peppers and eggplants and experiment in greenhouses on the farm with exotics like papayas and avocados, to see what they can get to grow in the New England climate. “During the summer you’ll find a dozen guys sitting on tables and benches,” Ross said, “shelling beans and telling lies about the size of their tomatoes.”
Whole families help with the preparation of a winter’s supply of sofrito, the condiment made with onion, garlic, cilantro, green peppers, and ajices dulces (sweet cooking peppers) that forms the base for many Puerto Rican dishes. Janet Crespo Santana makes it to sell out of a test kitchen at Nuestras Raíces’s downtown headquarters. The kitchen, approved for commercial use, is the home of El Jardín, a successful artisan bakery that makes an impressively crusty sourdough loaf in a wood-fired brick oven (it supplies local restaurants, and recently opened its own café in tony South Deerfield).
Practically everyone in town comes for lunch at Mi Plaza, a restaurant in the same building that uses Nuestras Raíces herbs and vegetables in the summer and makes traditional Puerto Rican food all year—some of it healthful (stewed chicken over plantains mashed with garlic, rice with fresh herbs and calabaza squash), some of it less so (Ross’s favorite, alcapurria, fritters of chile-spiked beef picadillo in a dough of grated taro root and green bananas).
Nutritionists in the sunny teaching kitchen of the health center, which is housed in a splendidly renovated furniture store downtown, show patients how to reduce the fat in traditional Puerto Rican dishes (Holyoke has the state’s highest diabetes rate), using fresh fruit and vegetables from the supermarket out of season and from a student-run Nuestras Raíces stand at a weekly farmers’ market in front of City Hall. “It goes way beyond food,” Ross said, “but it starts with food.”
The farm, a mile from downtown Holyoke, was Nuestras Raíces’s response to requests from community gardeners for larger plots that they could work commercially. It has turned into an attraction of its own, with a petting zoo, a farm stand, summer concerts, and weekly pig roasts—a look, and a life, as close as people in the Puerto Rican community can come to the villages they and their families remember.
A massive effort to till the overgrown land—the original four acres grew to 30 when the Sisters of Providence next door offered 26 prime acres for a nominal rent—brought together students, church groups, and pre-release prisoners to chop out invasive species, haul and spread tons of compost, and clear nature trails along the river. In a moment of what he now calls mad ambition, Ross decided to move an enormous red gabled barn from a site a few miles away. It was roofless when I saw it, but the plan is to house paso finos, “fine-stepping” horses that are a source of Puerto Rican pride.
Farmers go through an eight-week training program during which they write a business plan that serves as their application for a plot; so far, 20 of 45 applicants have been given plots at a monthly rent of $25 a quarter-acre, and microloans to start “incubator farms.” Teenage farmers don’t pay rent.
When not pig whispering, Angel Ortiz grows vegetables to sell at farm stands on the plot he rents with his friend Bob Chipman, which they call Angel and Bob’s Farm. He hopes to sell salad greens and tomatoes and even kale to his high school, Dean Technical, right down the road, “where we never have fresh vegetables, ever.”
Ortiz knows how to cook the vegetables he grows (he told me how he fries eggplant): his father is a professional cook, and “half my friends,” he says, are studying to be chefs at Dean Technical. “Some people think gardening is for girls only,” he told me, “and you should get a real job, like working at a factory.” But “seeing someone popular do it makes it easier.”
So does seeing men grow vegetables during the day and use the gardens as social clubs at night. On summer weekends, there are music festivals on a bandstand built from foraged wood. The pig roasts, tended by men, are so popular that the farm will spin off a lechonera, the name for restaurants and roadside stands all over Puerto Rico that sell spit-roasted pig and traditional side dishes.
Similar groups are growing (you can find programs that focus on youth and agriculture at www.thefoodproject.org/youthorgs). The People’s Grocery runs five city gardens in and around Oakland, California, and is planning a new 15-acre farm and park, with the aim of creating jobs for young people; in Boston, the Food Project has long been a national leader in teaching city high-school students how to farm, inviting students from around the city to its summer programs; in Brooklyn, Added Value is starting a 2.75-acre “urban farm” on a former playground in Red Hook, a primarily African American community, and has already launched a successful farmers’ market staffed by students.
But Nuestras Raíces stands out. The key, I was told by foundation managers and city officials, is active leaders who let the people the program is intended for set its agenda instead of the usual, as Linda Jo Doctor put it, “grown-ups deciding what young people need.”
“Food projects,” Ross told me, as he and Ortiz walked me back to the farm gate long after dark, “are an extremely powerful way to get at what’s healthy about a community.”
“During the summer you’ll find a dozen guys sitting on tables and benches,” Ross said, “shelling beans and telling lies about the size of their tomatoes.”