Community Food

Warning: long post ahead. There is a good point, I promise.

A few weeks ago, my friends over at The Pump let me know about an exciting opportunity to visit and work at the Target Bronx Community Garden.

This incredible space, which has been created with the support of the New York Restoration Project, gives meaning to the expression “urban oasis”:

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It’s hard to believe, but this beautiful garden is tucked away in an otherwise busy urban neighborhood—just blocks away from the bustle of Yankees Stadium. You exit here:

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Stroll up a few very hilly blocks:

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And at the top of these hills you’ll be greeted by the sight of this bird:

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It is the gatekeeper to a perfectly planted and maintained vegetable garden, which gazes calmly over a busy cityscape:

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How about these veggies? Green tomatoes galore.

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Also, baby watermelons (so cute!):

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Regular tomatoes:

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Bell peppers:

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And eggplant galore!

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My mind was full of dinner ideas as I strolled through the lanes of this fertile veggie haven. But recipe development wasn’t what I was there to do. My task for the day was to sit down and talk about nutrition with some of the people who have worked on the garden.

And I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming audience:

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These are the men and women behind the Target Bronx Community Garden. That fellow on the right there is Charlie, my program coordinator for the day’s event, who was so kind and welcoming to me. Next to him is a pastor from the local church, who kicked off our discussion by saying that she’s trying to incorporate more healthy options into her weekly soup kitchen. Many of her customers, she said, suffer from hypertension and/or diabetes: how to feed them without using too much salt or sugar?

I tried to share the most basic and practical tips I know: always buy soups, beans, and canned foods that are labeled as low-sodium. If you can, buy dried beans and legumes: you’ll save money and can cook them without adding too much salt.

I mentioned that using frozen vegetables can be a great alternative to canned. Frozen vegetables are quick, easy, fresh, and they don’t have any of the sodium of canned veggies. They’re available year round, and they’ve been shown in some studies to retain more nutrients (or relatively as many) as fresh vegetables that are slightly past their prime.

And of course, using fresh, local produce is always the most ideal option. The Target Bronx Community garden—and other community gardens like it—help to make this more achievable.

To help inspire the community members to eat more summer veggies, I passed out a few recipes. One was for Susan’s black bean and corn salad – a summertime classic that’s meat free and high protein. Another was for sweet potato soup, and it allowed for the use of canned pumpkin if that’s what’s available in supermarkets.

At the end of our talk, the members of the group were kind enough to get a photo with me:

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Me and Charlie—Charlie, thanks for being awesome!:

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This day reminded me of the privileges I have always enjoyed in being selective about how and what I eat. My ability to choose a vegan diet is a privilege. My degree of freedom in the foods I purchase and cook is a privilege. I recognize this and am so grateful for it.

Thank you, members of the Target Bronx Community Garden, for letting me come talk leafy greens with you, and for making fresh, nourishing food an option for the people around you.

For information on donating, volunteering, or becoming a member of the New York Restoration Project, please click here.

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  1. thank you so much for sharing. you captured an awesome project beautifully and added your own story too. i am really touched

  2. I do square box gardening too! in my very little tiny garden off my NYC studio — its wonderful to do & great of you to help out with a community garden. It’s so easy and inexpensive to grow your own food — I can’t recommend it enough.

  3. A fantastic project for these folks. You really don’t expect to see this type garden in a big city.

    I’ve been trying to eat “cleaner” by adding more fresh fruit and veggies. My Dr. gave me the speech again – diet, exercise and lose weight….

    Oh well, I saw you said you handed out a recipe for a sweet potato soup that you could sub can pumpkin for. But did not see the recipe. If you get a chance, would you send it to me.


  4. This is so awesome!!!!!

    I think we’ll be seeing more and more community gardens popping up, and hopefully especially in places like schools and hospitals so that people can have more access this food. Our hospital actually just started a community garden, and they now have food from local farms in the cafeteria!

  5. Excellent post, Gena, wow! What a great project. It’s so wonderful seeing locally grown food grown right in the middle of an urban food desert.

    And I love you for referencing Secret Garden! I am taken back to my childhood days, when I used to pretend I was in the secret garden all of the time. Ah, memories. πŸ™‚

  6. I loved this post. Community agriculture is an issue near and dear to my heart. I am lucky enough to live near a bunch of community gardens and my boyfriend’s mother actually has a plot at one. I love going by there and meeting the other people who do as well. I’m always stunned by the diversity of people from all socioeconomic classes who all want to eat more vegetables and have realized that growing their own is the most affordable way to do so.

    I have seen community gardens pop up all over my beloved city of Vancouver over the past few years, in all areas of the city, and I’m thrilled to see it happen in New York too. Community agriculture, is in my opinion among the best ways to encourage people to consume more fresh food. It becomes a shared project, something they can take pride in and create connections over.

    As someone who is just coming out of university and currently unemployed (I love the current economic situation so much… I’ll let you imagine my current expression) I am thrilled to have access to a community garden plot where I can grow the food I want organically and sustainably.

    I love this project, and I love that you got involved.

  7. such a lovely post…who knew that such an oasis existed right in them middle of the city!! i think its amazing that u took ur free time to go out there and talk with them. Its such an inspiring act that it just makes me want to get out of my seat and DO something- anything!!

    i love that u were able to touch the hearts of people of different age ranges! Duane is sooo adorable and its amazing how knowledgeable kids are and captivated they are by learning new things about eating healthy and cooking right!

  8. Incredible and inspiring post! What an amazing opportunity to get to meet with these people and share your love and knowledge of food and get to see the fruits of their work:)

  9. Wonderful post Gena! I like to think that by buying organic and local as much as I can I am doing my part to slowly drive down the costs of fresh local food so that more and more people can afford them. I volunteered a few times teaching science lessons to elementary students in an economically disadvantaged area of Boston and I remember vividly bringing in vegetables as part of a lesson on biology. The first question I got was completely off topic- what the vegetable was named, whether it was edible, and how it could be prepared. These kids were looking for cheap foods to prepare, and I was excited that they at least considered the vegetable a potential meal- but clearly their hunger was interfering with learning. I loved Jamie Oliver’s food revolution and hope it inspires many similar projects around the country. Getting healthy food to children in school would be SUCH a wonderful investment in the health, mental health, scholarship, and happiness of the next generation. I would love to see end of the day farmers markets set up in poor areas where farmers sell the produce that has not yet sold at the earlier markets at a discounted price. There is one farmers market in LA we have seen with incredible prices- not sure how they do it though.

  10. Gena, what a great post. I loved all the pictures of the garden. Wished mine looked that nice. I have lots of produce, but tons of weeds, due to lack of time this summer.

    Sounds like you had a very enjoyable time. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Such a beautiful post, Gena. I loved “meeting” all the people at the Bronx garden and seeing the amazing produce. You are so right, we all to often take our privileged postiions for granted and don’t realize how lucky we are. Thanks for letting us know about this and for being part of it!

  12. Awesome! What a wonderful entry today! I forwarded your blog to my friend Emily. She will be studying food systems at NYU this fall. Maybe when I come visit her sometime, I can visit this community garden as well! You are doing great things!

  13. EXCELLENT post. This initiative is fantastic and I love you had the opportunity to visit (and share with us about it!). Many of us are very lucky to make the nutrition choices we do, and I know I definitely take it for granted much of the time.

  14. i am really awed by this post, gena – particularly the last few paragraphs, which are so well-written, i can’t really handle it. seriously, thank you for consistently inspiring me to write more and write well.

    this is an incredible and commendable initiative, and i’m glad you shared it with us. we should all be grateful that we have the privileges that we do – i think we all take them for granted far too much of the time.

  15. Great post! We can all use a reminder every now and then that we are SO lucky to have choice in what we eat; that is a luxury that many do not have. Beautiful pics too!
    PS Saw the blurb about you in the VegWeb letter yesterday:)

  16. Community gardens rock! And I bet it’s especially gratifying to see all that nature in inner-city New York. Around here, we have lots of natural spaces, but we still have a few great community gardens in some of the urbanized and impoverished areas…for the people in low-income neighborhoods that may not be able to drive the 20 or so minutes to nearby Arkansas or Mississippi Farm (both states have loads of rural farmland and are only 20 min from downtown Memphis). The NY garden looks awesome!!

  17. Thanks for sharing this with us! I read an interesting article in the Boston Globe this morning about a $20 million grant from the Agriculture Department that will study the results of giving a $0.30 discount on food stamp purchases for every dollar spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re going to track whether it affects longer term lifestyle choices and obesity. I like seeing initiatives like this and the Community Garden, and hope that they will make a meaningful difference in the lives of those without many resources.

  18. What a wonderful post! I really loved it! After reading this I feel compelled to talk to people in my local community who are running community gardens! I think we will be seeing more and more of this type of community because it makes sense and it works!! What a great experience!

  19. Great post! I’ve got some friends who are into community gardens / permaculture / guerilla gardening. And I join the choir in saying “How cute is Duane!”

  20. Loved this post Gena! I would snatch Duane up in a second …

    This really inspires me to go out in my community and see where I could be of help to people. Thanks for sharing.

  21. Just beautiful! I love this post! Community gardens are so important, so happy you are shining a light on them! πŸ™‚

  22. Beautiful, thoughtful post, Gena. It’s incredible how distant the blog community’s attitudes and behaviors with food are from the realities of so many people, particularly in this city. We look with disdain at an afterschool snack of Doritos and Mountain Dew, but what do we really know of that child’s understanding of food? What I’ve seen, in the time I’ve spent volunteering with kids at a Bronx school, is that they’re coming from a whole other universe of nutrition, where availability, accessibility, and education are constant forces working against their health. It’s daunting, trying to counteract those forces, but the people who are working towards that purpose, like those at this community garden, are doing something amazing and invaluable. It’s so inspiring.

  23. This is so great! I live in NYC and I haven’t heard of this yet. I’m gonna bookmark it and look more into it myself. Thanks for the great post!

    • D,

      Soon I’ll be mentioning it again, along with t-shirt photos and salad eating recaps. Get excited, buddy.


  24. I loved this post! So often you take topics that I talk with my husband about all the time and turn them into blog posts far more eloquent than I could manage!

    I grew up on an island with some socioeconomic issues so I’ve always been aware of food availability/quality issues but when I ate lunch with my students (I worked at a D- school in East New York) when I was a teacher it so reinforced that lesson. I have some eating issues of my own in my past and I am honestly thankful for them because they represent the *choice* and freedom (even if I didn’t give myself freedom) I had in my lifestyle.

  25. BRAVA! BRAVA! This was such a beautiful post, Gena. I loved the pictures (and yes, I definitely see the comparison to Secret Garden!) but I loved your passion on this subject even more.

    It is shocking how many people in a country as wealthy as the USA do not have access to fresh, healthy food. Not all grocery stores are created equal, and when you have to work 2 or 3 minimum wage jobs, have no childcare, and no transportation, finding a way to access a store that sells affordable fruits and vegetables can truly be impossible. It is an outrage that we are denied the basic human right to good, clean, sustainable, and affordable food. The most basic requirement of life, and so many of us do not have it.

    It enrages me to hear people make cruel and ignorant comments about the state of poor health in America. Sure, some people could do better and choose not to. But there is a huge population of people who would LOVE to do better, but physically, geographically, socially, and economically CANNOT find the food they need to eat to be healthy. Companies that are killing Americans, like McDonalds, prey on low-income neighborhoods.

    I could go on and on about the subject of food justice, as you know, it is very close to my heart. I love food, think about it constantly, and there is little that brings me as much joy, but I can never enjoy it with complete abandon while our current global food system denies food to 1.2 billion people and denies healthy food to a further 1.7 billion people.

    I am THRILLED and brought to tears to see local community strategies like the one you described popping up and more and more. We have to take back our right to grow our own food and to keep our families and our communities healthy. Growing food is freedom.

    Thank you SO much for this brilliant post.

    • Tasha,

      I think you’ve done more than any other blogger to open my eyes to issues of food injustice. This post could seriously be dedicated to you. Thanks for reading it. We’ll talk soon, I’m sure!


  26. What an amazing experience Gena! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Sometimes we forget that a little bit of knowledge goes a long way – all of us in the blog world have so much knowledge re:nutrition that sometimes I think we forget not everyone does – being able to share what we know and are passionate about is an amazing thing πŸ™‚
    P.S. you look beautiful in the pictures πŸ™‚

    • Ha! I actually had a cold that day πŸ™‚ But thanks — I’m glad it didn’t show.

  27. Great post, very insightful.

    In the past, I have done volunteer work in the kitchen of a local homeless shelter, and it was a very enlightening and eye-opening experience. The first thing I noticed is that people who need to visit a soup kitchen are not unlike you and me – in fact, it could just as easily be you or me. They are people, they have emotions, and personalities, and fears, and yes, they do have pride and it takes a lot for some people to even step into a place like that, no matter how hungry they are. It is so easy to think of homeless or underprivileged people as monsters, or crazy people, or just generally the kind of people you want to avoid, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I remember one old man who would come in every day, he was so cheerful and chatty with everyone, and he would help clean up after the meals – he was exactly the kind of person you would NOT expect to see in a place like that. One day when I was chatting with him, he pulled out his wallet, unfolded a picture that was probably 30+ years old, and showed me his ex-wife – wasn’t she beautiful? I have no idea what his ‘story’ is, or the circumstances surrounding his need for social services, but it was touching that underneath the ‘needy’ label was a regular man with life experiences, good memories, and most importantly, a brain.

    I find it very frustrating sometimes to hear people complain about things like a certain product not being 100% raw, or another product that has only 80% organic ingredients, etc. Great principles, but let’s work on the basics and make sure everyone, everywhere, has food to eat before we worry about those kind of ‘luxury’ problems.

  28. What a beautiful garden, and I’m so happy you got to share your knowledge with those lovely people! It’s so great that they wanted to learn more and that they have that amazing community garden.

    One thing that has always stuck with me is the idea that people (and I have done things like this too) spend so much time obsessing over the “right” way to eat, and if they are eating healthy/pure/vegan/raw enough or doing everything perfectly…and meanwhile there are people who don’t even have the option to eat this way. Sometimes when I hear someone saying things like “I ate something that wasn’t raw or healthy…I feel guilty” I just gently tell them not to feel guilty, but instead to feel grateful for the opportunity to nourish themselves.
    My history is quite similar to yours…but now I’m just grateful to have food in my fridge. Thanks for sharing this- I think it is a beautiful thing that you did here.

  29. what a wonderful post! i’m so happy to see that garden in the middle of the city! the urban jungle πŸ™‚ i think education is so important when it comes to foods that nourish the body. we live in such a fast paced society that we don’t have to sacrifice our health for “fast foods” or packaged snacks containing a laundry list of offenders. health is my number one priority as i look to the future in my life because without it one will have to compromise their quality of life. we’re here to enjoy it!

  30. Beautifully written. We are so fortunate to have a choice, and to have the resources to sneak veggies into our children’s food. It’s always blown my mind that a big mac is cheaper than a fresh tomato. It’s completely unfair to the low-income consumer, the farmer, and kids like Duane who are more likely to succeed in school if provided with healthy food.

    The Bronx Garden is an inspiration. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with the amazing group of people there, and sharing your experience with us.

  31. I love this post! As someone who lives in peanut/cotton country, it’s hard for me to imagine rooftop gardens. Did you notice a difference in air quality? Do they make any special accommodations for the plants due to pollution/smog?

  32. Sounds wonderful!

    In my sociology studies, the lack of good nutrition in disadvantaged neighborhoods has always been a popular discussion topic. Not only are the fruits and veggies just not available, if they are, the prices are hiked up higher than we could even afford. And without transportation, good public or private, how does one get out of the neighborhood to get any? It’s a sad sad thing, and our society is to blame, not the residents of these neighborhoods πŸ™ So unfortunate.

    This project sounds great! I know they benefited greatly from your help.

    You look gorgeous, as always xoxo

  33. What a beautiful post! It pays to be reminded to take things back to basics sometimes πŸ™‚

  34. This is a really powerful post. My heart is warmed by the project in the Bronx and what I want is for it to be replicated over and over again throughout urban areas. It IS hard for many people to make the right choices due to access and money. For those of us who can make those decisions and do have access, what can do for others? You give a us a great example what one can do. Thanks!

  35. Wonderful post, it left me a bit lump-in-throat. It’s such an important topic you’ve addressed here, good food and its availability. Every time we eat, we eat as part of a community because what we buy, what we eat (or don’t) affects somebody. I can be so difficult to produce healthy, interesting food everyday on a budget, especially if you’re overstretched with work and family. Inspiring people and sharing all your knowledge about healthy eating is so important!

  36. Gena, I think this is one of my favorite posts ever! I loved seeing the pictures of the community garden, and I loved the message that you got out there – that people should eat more produce. I worked on an organic plant farm this summer and was really able to experience firsthand what it means to eat local, what it means to be eat sustainably, what it means to plant and harvest your own food… i think in being in increased contact with the soil from which my food comes gave me an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this earth and how the food we get from it truly nourishes our body, as it is meant to (unlike synthetic, processed food). i also just came back from a very life-changing trip in south africa where i was working with kids who were struggling to eat and it really made me rethink my own relationship with food. i was thinking about how the overabundance of food that many of us have has fostered an unhealthy relationship with food… we see it as the devil, not as fuel to nourish us, not as something pleasurable to sustain us. but yes, in a garden or a farm, when you see that the crops are a work of your own hand, you really begin to appreciate it.

    thanks for this post gena! i loved every bit of it.

    ps duane is such a cutie!

  37. I fall somewhere in between. I can afford to buy fresh produce, but only if I’m really careful and shop the weekly sales, comparing prices between each stores’ circular. A $10 salad bar would be out of the question! I get sort of depressed when I read all of your (bloggers) writings about kale salads and green smoothies and so forth, because I can’t afford to buy any of those things. And yet, I’m still doing better than a lot of other people. I’m really grateful for what I have; that I’m able to eat fresh, nutritious food, even if it isn’t the same exciting stuff that is mentioned on these blogs.

    • Molly,

      You bring up an important point, which is that plenty of my readers are students or people on an extreme budget. Sorry — I didn’t mean to suggest that we all have 100$ to spend on groceries each week! But I do think most of us have a degree of freedom that we have to be grateful for — and clearly, you are πŸ™‚


  38. This post absolutely warms my heart!! I think community gardens are an absolute must in all urban areas. Unfortunately, that’s not currently the case, but I have hope for the future. I so agree that we get caught up in the “minutiae of food and eating,” and spending our money on all of these specialty products when people don’t have the basics. I think you’ve inspired me to eat more simply. While I love my coconut oil, cacao, hemp, chia, is it absolutely necessary? No. Do I want to inspire people and show them that anybody can eat healthier on the same budget they spend now? Yes.

    I’m also extremely blessed to have access to such wonderful, fresh, local produce here in California and I try to not ever take it for granted. That is not the case for many others. Thank you for bringing this issue to light. Such an awesome experience!!

  39. How lucky you were to visit such an amazing place and for them to have your valuable expertise. I do think there needs to be much more access to produce in this country. Have you heard of the doctors giving out vouchers to farmer’s markets for produce? Things like that need to happen more often. I frustrates me so much that an apple costs more than a cheeseburger. Environmental costs not factored in of course.

    Thanks for you bravery in posting about your eating disorder. It is so powerful to see that you’ve come to really love food in a healthy way.

    • Bitt,

      Thanks so much. See my above response to Averie. Now that I’m at a place in life where I can talk about this stuff without shame or denial, I’ll do so as often as I can if it helps anyone.


  40. Great post! I do have to mention though, that part of the problem with getting low income families to eat healthy is also lack of access. I think this garden is a great, huge, very important step in the right direction. I just wish there were more of them. Now. But, baby steps…

    Unfortunately, until access is no longer a problem, going to the mcdonald’s on the corner is still going to be the cheapest option. So sad.

  41. I’m honored, Gena, truly.

    I love that you are doing things like this in all of your “free time.” It says a lot about who you are.

    Every time I have negative thoughts or feelings about food, I always remember how BLESSED I am to have access to healthy, fresh, organic REAL food and to know what to do with it. I try my hardest to not take that for granted.

  42. What a fantastic organization! And you honored them with your great tribute.

    I agree with Averie that it really is sad when people spend so much at a salad bar, etc. (I am guilty of this myself) when that amount could easily feed several people.

    I just have to add that The Secret Garden is one of my favorite books. Ever.

  43. Gena, I loved this post. It’s so true that many of us are incredibly privileged to even have a choice about what we eat. And I’m glad you are inspiring others to eat more healthfully. Duane looks like he’ll be quite the heartbreaker one day :-).

  44. I loved this post πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing your experience at the garden. It’s true that we’re *so* lucky to have the choice of what to eat…chia seeds, coconut butter, etc. But it sort of takes away from the fact that healthy eating CAN be very affordable- it’s just a little more simplistic.

    Oh, and Duane is adorableeeee!

  45. I just had an epic comment typed and my mouse went wonky and I lost it and i will retype some of it…

    “we get very caught up in the minutiae of food and eating. “–Yes and it bores me to tears. Oats, nut butter, chia seeds and overpriced trips to the WF’s hot bar. It’s all too boring and it feels somehow wrong and excessive to care THAT much about specialty foods when some people don’t have any food, at all.

    Which brings me to:

    “I cannot get any of the food that I wasted back, but I can be forever grateful for the fact that I have always had the capacity to eat plentifully and well, and with pleasure. ”

    Ok I think it’s amazing that you mentioned/admitted this, it’s big and bold and I love it! I cringe every time I read that someone went to the WF’s hot bar and dropped $10 bucks on one plate of food. I feed a family of 3 people, all day, for $5, tops. It seems wasteful some of the choices any of us make on any given day when some people simply don’t have enough to eat. It breaks my heart and makes me almost not able to read food blogs..b/c it’s like here I am in my nice comfy chair, reading about food, and someone is walking around hungry. It just doesnt seem right. What to do? Not sure.

    Anyway, this is long again so I will stop but amazing post, Gena!! Amazing gift, the gardens, the whole thing, I love it all!


    • Thanks Averie, so much. Nothing brave about it, but if my sharing my past psycho habits (sorry, ED veterans, I mean no disrespect, but if we can’t laugh about hiding food under the table, what CAN we laugh about) helps anyone, well then, that’s great πŸ™‚

  46. Wow, amazing post. Simply beautiful. What an awesome experience and I am very thankful for the food choices I have. It’s sad going into a “value” grocery store and seeing isles of processed foods and sugary sodas, but a very weak produce department. And families leaving with boxes of ramen soup, cheap cereals and frozen pizzas while lacking in veggies. I really respect projects like this and wish I could dedicate more time and resources to.

  47. Lovely post! It is indeed important to be thankful for the choices we have. Eating healthy food isn’t always a viable choice for people, and it is much more useful to spread information and provide resources than to assume people can afford to eat healthy, or have the tools to do so in the first place. Cooking healthy food from scratch takes not only quality (read, pricier) ingredients, but also lots of time, functional cooking utensils, and knowing one’s way around a kitchen.

  48. If we stopped subsidizing the corn and wheat industries, processed foods would not be the cheapest option, and we would all be much healthier for it. Gena, you do such a good job of being thoughtful about the way you view food and how you put it into a broad perspective for your readers. You are truly a gem!

    And, am I the only one who teared up after reading this? And how cute is Duane?!:)

  49. I LOVED this post.

    It is soo sad that processed food often costs more than fruits and veggies. Growing up, my mom, sister and I were on welfare. My mom would eat reheated donated restaurant food so that my sister and I would be able to eat the vegetables she knew we needed to grow strong. There are so many people who take what they eat for granted. I can tell you that although my family has come a long way from our financially troubled past, I will never forget where I came from and the sacrifices my family had to make just to get a modest dinner on the table.

    I think it is great what you are doing! Thank you!

  50. This touched my heart, Gena. Thank you for sharing your experience at the community garden. I try to remind myself every day just how fortunate I am to have anything I want to eat. There are times when I feel guilty about indulging or overeating and forget that having the access to healthy, nutritious food is a privilege not to be taken lightly. I wish I could cook and eat eggplant (my favorite veggie) with Duane. What a cutie pie.

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