The ‘Sankofa Initiative’ – A High Impact Urban Agricultural Community
West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation - a non-profit NeighborWorks’ network organization that serves the West End of Providence, Rhode Island – is developing a large, multi-layered urban agricultural community in the mixed industrial/residential West End. While the initiative is still in the planning and implementation phase, the project blueprint has considerable scale and reach, with the potential to significantly transform this neighborhood for the benefit of the many diverse communities that call the West End home.
The project is called the Sankofa Initiative - named after a Ghanaian word meaning ‘go back and get it’ - and involves four separate but interrelated components:
1. Affordable Housing - The construction of 50 housing rental units for residents at 30-60 percent area median income (AMI).
2. ‘Sankofa Community Farm’ – A large 16,500 square foot agricultural space and three satellite community gardens with plots for growing fresh produce, including foods that are meaningful to the cultures of different immigrant groups.
3. ‘Sankofa World Market’ - An outdoor farmer’s market where residents and local gardeners can sell crops harvested at the Community Farm and access foods that are healthy, affordable and in demand by the neighborhood’s diverse cultures. The market also offers artistic activities and events, multi-cultural crafts and prepared foods, as well as providing health screenings and many other resources.
4. Produce Preparation and Event Space – A large indoor facility (part of the housing construction project) with a kitchen to prepare produce for sale at the World Market, as well as event space for cooking classes and other healthy eating demonstrations.
The project took root back in 2011, when the African Alliance of Rhode Island – an organization that promotes the interests of African immigrants in the state – approached West Elmwood with a request: they wanted some land for gardening. West Elmwood is home to many foreign-born residents (approximately 40 percent of the population), including a number of African immigrants who regularly farmed in their native countries and wanted a place in Providence to do the same.
Around the same time, refugee resettlement groups expressed concern about the poor quality of affordable housing options in the neighborhood, and also reached out to West Elmwood for assistance. West Elmwood Housing has since developed a partnership with Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, the state’s largest refugee services agency, to provide its clients with high-quality, healthy and well-managed apartments.
It was also clear from talking with residents that there were few affordable healthy food options nearby. Moreover, what did exist did not satisfy the culinary habits of the neighborhood’s foreign-born population, who were facing high levels of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health disparities.
To address these concerns, West Elmwood assembled a collaborative comprised of residents, local agricultural leaders, and health organizations, including the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Brown University School of Public Health, the Southside Community Land Trust, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Sankofa Initiative arose from convenings between these partners.
In 2012, Sankofa was awarded a three year grant from the Rhode Island Department of Health, giving West Elmwood the funding needed to launch the project. To date, three sites of the Community Farm are up and running, and development of the main 16,500 square foot farm, plus season-extending greenhouses, is slated to begin in the summer of 2016. The World Market’s second season will begin this July and run through September (West Elmwood hopes the Market will eventually be open year round). Produce like sweet potato leaves and bitter egg plants are being grown on the Farm (as well as other parts of the community), and sold at the Market alongside crafts and prepared foods from around the world. And with subsidies from the low-income housing tax credit program (LIHTC), the housing developments will break ground this June.
This multi-faceted project addresses many issues. It tackles blight by developing housing and agricultural space on underutilized property; deals with food scarcity by encouraging the growth and consumption of healthy, culturally relevant produce; and helps the economy by giving residents the opportunity to sell what they grow and use other entrepreneurial skills to improve family wealth. It also generates affordable housing, and does it all on a scale that has the capacity to produce systemic, long-term growth by improving the health, housing and economic opportunities of West End’s residents.
What do you think of the Sankofa Initiative? Does it inspire you to think about new and innovative ways to address the issues faced by the communities you serve?
Photos and Logo Courtesy of the Sankofa Initiative