PHOENIX – On a plot of land in south Phoenix surrounded by tire shops, auto repair and other industrial businesses, an urban garden is flourishing. Heart and Soil People’s Garden works to feed families, teach the importance of farming in urban areas and support women-owned businesses.
Now it’s sponsoring a monthly open-air market and produce giveaway at First and Durango streets to expand its neighborhood outreach.
For years, the land where the garden now stands was used as a dump for an adjacent tire business. Ten years ago, Pat Fleischmann created the community garden to bring life to the space after Community Tire Pros & Auto Repair donated the plot. All different types of herbs, vegetables and produce were planted for anyone to enjoy. After retiring in June 2022, Fleischmann signed the deed over to Local First Arizona, a nonprofit committed to community and economic development.
Local First then handed over management responsibilities for the land to local farmer and beekeeper Nika Forté. The section of Phoenix where the garden is located is identified as a food desert by the Arizona Department of Health Services. It’s also across the street from a Title 1 school – a school with a large number of low-income students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Food deserts are defined “as rural or urban areas where residents have limited access to healthy food options.” According to data from the city of Phoenix, this food desert is one of 43 in the city.
In addition to managing the Durango Street community garden, Forté is urban farm manager for St. Vincent De Paul Phoenix, running three urban farms, and also conducts her own beekeeping program. Forté relied on her previous connections to start the community garden. Heart and Soil People’s Garden receives support from the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee for Justice or Else, a group working to end poverty, injustice and inequality. Forté had worked with the group in the past on other projects, so it was a natural partnership for this venture
In addition to managing the Durango Street community garden, Forté is urban farm manager for St. Vincent De Paul Phoenix, running three urban farms, and also conducts her own beekeeping program. Forté relied on her previous connections to start the community garden. Heart and Soil People’s Garden receives support from the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee for Justice or Else, a group working to end poverty, injustice and inequality. Forté had worked with the group in the past on other projects, so it was a natural partnership for this venture.
“We want to be centralized in a sense and make it easily accessible because Phoenix is so spread out,” said Tremikus Muhammad, chair of the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee. “This is urban gardening at its finest. We are teaching people you don’t have to have huge plots of land or to be a major farmer. You can take a small area right in the middle of a neighborhood and grow food to feed hundreds of people.”
Local First Arizona says farmland in Maricopa County is disappearing faster than anywhere else in the country, threatening the local food supply.
To further its community outreach, the garden added a monthly open-air market to its produce giveaway. Vendor spots are open to small businesses, particularly women-owned businesses. Forté hopes the market will help the businesses raise their profile and tap into more income. The intimacy of the garden fosters the chance for the business owners to network with other vendors and consumers.
“This is not only an opportunity for those individuals (with businesses) to have a space where people can expect them to be on a regular basis, but it also draws attention to the work we’re doing in the garden,” Forté said.
All farmers at the garden are women. The monthly market event offers free produce for anyone to take. In March, the offerings were onions, oranges, eggs, lettuce, carrots, potatoes and turnips. More than 150 families came for the produce. The women who farm at the garden not only supply the community with food, but they are able to grow food for their own families, too.
The Mc Gordon family has embraced the opportunity. Alison Mc Gordon began growing at the garden in November. Before coming to the garden, she tried to grow in her backyard with little success. Since taking Forté’s beekeeping classes and going through two growth cycles at Heart and Soil, she said she has seen a difference the farm-to-table food has had on her family.
“Last year after my son was born. I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and some other things,” Mc Gordon said. “We’ve been able to reverse that by eating healthier and incorporating more vegetables into our family meals. It’s also been good for our family to have time in the garden. My son walks around like he owns the place, and we spend a lot of time here. “
Not only is it important to support women growers, but it is equally as important to teach the younger generation how to grow, Muhammad said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census showed that with a third of the United States farmers over 65, it is crucial to teach more people how to farm. According to the same census, 95% of all farmers in the United States are white.
“You have a whole generation, particularly in the Black community, of people who are not interested in the land or growing,” Muhammad said. “Because of historical practices through slavery, many of us had no desire to go back to the plantation or back to the land to start growing again. We need to create an environment through women and mothers.”
Even though they are just starting out, the effort has attracted a lot of interest among local vendors and the community. There are more than 30 women on the waiting list to serve as volunteer gardeners. In the next two years, Forté hopes to purchase a lot next to the current garden to expand their space and neighborhood reach.
Kaila LePage and Ilissa McDonald are vendors who appreciate the monthly market. After meeting six months ago, the two small business owners decided to join forces. LePage specializes in holistic medicine. With her background as a registered nurse, she wanted to explore natural remedies for herself and her family. Her business has grown and now she makes her own skin care and herbal wellness remedies as a certified herbalist.
McDonald uses her background in nursing and mental health to address the maternal mortality crisis among women of color. She creates herbal teas for womb and pregnancy health. LePage encouraged McDonald to start her business by bringing her to other community markets last year. Both of the vendors said the south Phoenix market attracts people who usually know about herbal medicine and teas, which has helped them increase their revenue over the past three months. But they also appreciate the support they receive from other women at the market.
“It makes me feel warm and welcomed. From the very beginning, Nika said, ‘Don’t be nervous to be a part of it. You can just come and be yourself,’” McDonald said. “Seeing what she has done with the garden and with her business is very empowering and encouraging. It makes me feel like I can do anything.”
The next market and produce giveaway is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 15 at the garden, 123 E. Durango St., Phoenix.