July 28th, 2011

Another guest post from Intern Alec Niedenthal:

Last Wednesday I volunteered at the West End Community Gardens, an undertaking of Urban Ministry and the Community Church Without Walls. Urban Ministry, a faith-based but non-sectarian 501c(3) nonprofit, has worked tirelessly since 1976 to address both the immediate and structural causes of poverty in the Birmingham area. The West End Community Garden is devoted to meeting poverty at its core: the stomach.

In my experience, food movements usually advocate a “healthy” or “fit” lifestyle with little concern for the politics of their cause. However, WE Gardens mark an emergence of health-based advocacy from within a community. Rather than promote an ideal of the human body, the Gardens are directed toward a community’s specific needs, as defined by that community. These needs, however, are properly universal in nature: the right to nutrition.

“WE Gardens is a place to build community and provides jobs for young men through the internship program,” Zac Henson, a veteran volunteer at the Gardens, echoed via email. “It’s community economic development from the ground up.”

Garden Manager Myron Pierre similarly said, “The way to a community’s heart is through its stomach.”



Upon arriving, Garden Director Ama Shambulia tasked me with staking rebars around the two plots of emergent pepper plants. Because I’m relatively inexperienced–well, I can count the amount of times I’ve walked through a garden on one hand–I wasn’t planting rebars with confidence until I reached the second plot.

After running out of rebars, Myron asked me to use a hoop-hoe to cut weeds out of the soil around a small crop of blueberry shrubs.

I was furrowing the ground with some difficulty until Myron pointed out to me that my hoop-hoe was upside-down.

So with my bearings set, I would throw my instrument forward, but rather than rake the earth I tore at it, dragging it back to me. In time a dense, earthen sweat pulled at my shirt, my hoop-hoe unpacking the dirt in thin, weed-strewn hollows

After about an hour, Zac arrived and we weeded together. The sunlight broadened, but my sweat somehow began to shrink–likely due to the easing humidity, the heat itself sharpening as the weeds disappeared with our effort, not one-by-one but as a stolid mass. I understood working as a body beside another body: how it feels, the chatter than ensues, the flat continuous length of the day.

At the end of my short shift, I hung around with Antonio and Jamal, two Urban Ministry Interns. We–I should say they–talked about Camelbaks, the nylon potables toted on one’s back to provide easy-access hydration.

I then watched Jamal, Myron and Antonio do what I never could: alter a plastic drum to, I assume, store and preserve flowering plants. Jamal pored over it with a drill while Myron and Antonio dispensed backseat advice: a nail here, a strip of wood there, a dollop of concrete at either end.

There’s no easy way to end this post, no touching last moment that will varnish this day with blog-ready hope and the promise of a solution. West End Community Gardens is not the solution to a problem. “Let food grow”—as one of the garden’s signs declares—might someday be a divine command, but until then it testifies, quietly though not impassively, to a community’s resilience, which however proceeds only to a point, to a stubborn limit beyond which more expansive action is needed; to pass beyond this limit is not to enter politics, but to affirm that food is political, that hunger is the brutish bottom of politics.