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In a long-abandoned school playground, a small-scale farm is planting seeds for a more equitable and sustaining food system in a neighborhood where fresh, affordable food is hard to come by.
The Midtown Farm in Tucson, Arizona, is an offshoot of the Flowers & Bullets Collective in the Barrio Centro neighborhood. Tito Romero and Jacob Robles, friends since childhood now in their early 30s, launched the organization in 2012 to provide healthy food alternatives, to improve their neighborhood, and to share their Latino and Indigenous cultures. “The idea of growing food, being sustainable, has been a trend for some time in predominantly White, middle-class communities,” Robles says. “For communities in the barrio, communities of color, those trends don’t reach us as easily.”
The friends spent about five years planting gardens and installing rainwater harvesting systems in people’s backyards before they and other members of the collective began leasing a 4-acre portion of their closed former elementary school to grow crops and build a sense of community. Where the friends, as youngsters, used to kick around a soccer ball and dangle from monkey bars, they now harvest fruits and vegetables, raise goats and chickens, and put on gardening workshops for their neighbors.
Although urban agriculture has a long history, Barrio Centro is part of a more recent movement to increase food security in underserved, largely ethnic communities while retaining or reclaiming cultural traditions and values that people can share and express through those spaces. In West Sacramento, California, the We Grow Urban Farm sits across from an elementary school in the low-income neighborhood of Broderick, where it serves local residents and seeks “to empower the next generation of farmers of color.” And in Chicago, the Urban Growers Collective, a Black- and women-led nonprofit, cultivates eight urban farms mostly on the South Side, where more than 76% of residents are Black.
Barrio Centro sprawls next to a highway and sits directly beneath the flight path of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Aircraft noise led to the closure of Julia Keen Elementary in 2004, depriving residents of not just a school, but a vibrant neighborhood hub. “This school was extremely important for this community,” says Romero. “It was two meals a day for kids, it was after-school programming, it was youth sports, it was employment. It was a safe space.”
The farm is a way of restoring some of the lost community space, Romero says, adding that the goal is to someday buy more or all of the 9.5-acre campus to accommodate growth. He spends many mornings at the farm doing various chores. Like most of the collective’s dozen core members, he is a volunteer; Robles is one of three full-time employees. On a recent summer day, Romero was in the greenhouse spraying a natural pest repellent on dozens of plant seedlings that would later be transplanted into the ground. “We have some kale, some chard, some mustards, lettuce, broccoli,” he says, his voice trailing as the thunderous roar of a jet invades the greenhouse.
Long before the first seeds were planted, Romero says, he and his friends would often wonder at the possibility of developing their enterprise on the campus. “For years, we would drive by the school and say, ‘Damn, everything that we’re doing in the community, imagine that we could do it there.’”
What they were doing was selling T-shirts with culturally relevant artistic imagery, a venture that later would finance the first seeds of what would become the agriculture component of Flowers & Bullets. “We started with $500 and some T-shirts, meetings at the park, potlucks at each other’s homes,” Romero says. In time, one backyard garden led to another and another.
Favorable neighborhood reception to their projects motivated the group to organize around the need for a green space that residents could call their own, Robles says. They’d begun looking at their neighborhood through a different lens since taking an ethnic studies program in high school that encouraged activism and critical thinking from a Mexican-American perspective on such topics as socio-economic inequality. While the program stoked controversy and legal battles, it taught Romero and Robles that they could effect change within their own community.
“There’s a lot of families here, generational families, and people take a lot of pride in this community,” Robles says. “And there’s a lot of beauty in those things, but if I’m being completely real, there’s also a lot of struggle.” That duality is embodied in the name of the collective. “We like to say that flowers are the art, the beauty, the culture—and the bullets are kind of the struggle, the things we had to face in our community growing up, and the resistance to those things, like gang influence and drug abuse.”
Most of Barrio Centro’s residents are Latinos, many low-income. Their neighborhood isn’t blessed with the abundance of farmers markets or green spaces found in more affluent neighborhoods, but the collective set out to change that. In 2017, after submitting a project proposal for the farm concept to the Tucson Unified School District, the Flowers & Bullets Collective got the keys to the vacant school property.
By then, Dora Martinez, a member of the collective, had joined the nonprofit. Her previous work as a farm manager was crucial in developing the group’s sustainable agriculture program. In April 2018, the group received a $600,000 three-year grant from the University of Arizona’s Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. It was a big boost for a project that sought not just to feed residents, but also to become a neighborhood resource that could offer educational workshops, jobs, and a sense of empowerment.
Existing programs at the farm and others being developed in concert with the community aim to get even more people involved and connected in the neighborhood. Although activities slowed when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the farm became a drive-through destination where residents could obtain masks, hand sanitizer, and free seeds.
Now, the collective is gradually reactivating programs. After a recent harvest of native corn, Robles and the group’s project manager, Silvia Valdillez, led a small workshop for residents on how to grind it into masa, or dough, for tortillas, using ancient methods dating to Mesoamerican culture.
“For us, these foodways are a part of our identity,” Robles says. “They are a connection to the land, the seasonal cycles and how to maintain our health and our ceremonies. It’s also important not to lose these practices that our ancestors maintained and died for.”
Another program, the subscription-based “barrio supported agriculture,” offers people a bagful of freshly-picked produce for $10-$20 each. People can stop by the farm to pick it up, or they can donate it to someone else.
On a recent Tuesday, local resident and farm supporter Susana Valdez left with a bag loaded with about 20 pounds of produce, including green beans, eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and Armenian cucumbers. “You get different things, whatever’s in season,” she says. “The bell peppers and the carrots may not be as pretty as the ones you see in the store, but they taste amazing.”
In fact, Valdez says, knowing those who put the time and effort into growing crops for the community—without pesticides—makes her appreciate their produce even more. “I often hang out there with my child and I get to support them,” she says. “They let you feed the goats, they let you feed the chickens, and children can pick vegetables. It’s beautiful, it’s bringing people together.”
The farm is a critical piece of the neighborhood transformation that Flowers & Bullets seeks, but its work extends beyond the two acres of rows of peppers, squash, basil and other crops that tint green the arid landscape. The collective has planted some 300 desert willows, mesquites, and other native trees throughout the neighborhood and successfully petitioned the city to install additional street lightning and speed bumps. And it covered the initial expense of rainwater harvesting systems so residents could take advantage of a government rebate program. This summer, Flowers & Bullets is tapping residents for ideas to revitalize a vacant lot in the neighborhood.
The farm also serves as an outlet for people required to do community service after a brush with the law, or as they adapt to life after incarceration. Tim Deisering, 25, completed his community service at the farm in 2019, after being cited for trespassing on private property. He picked vegetables, dug holes with a backhoe tractor, and fed brewer’s grain to the goats, among other chores.
“I never had a green thumb before I went there, or even really an interest in it to be honest,” he says. “Working over there at Flowers & Bullets definitely changed my outlook on that. I learned how to grow my own food, I learned how to harvest my own food.”
Although he no longer has to do it, Deisering still stops by the farm to help out. He’s one of a wider group of volunteers who lend a hand when time and responsibilities allow. “The other day we were covering plants from the sun so they don’t get too beat up,” he says. “There’s always something to do at the farm.”
Six-year-old Aden Alexander likes to catch pesky animals before they munch on crops. One day, the boy and his father, farm employee Brandon Alexander, placed a rabbit trap near a shady hackberry tree on an edge of the farm. “He really likes to hang out here,” says the father, who grew up in the neighborhood. “My nana and my tata came here a long time ago and I still live here.”
Alexander, who along with Robles tends the farm all day, says he enjoys working at a place that offers nutritious food to his family and his neighbors. And, while the farm addresses a real need to ensure equitable access to healthy food, Romero points out, it’s also an effective conduit for residents to share successes and challenges. “It’s healing, to be able to not just create a community but also have a space to gather in.”
Lourdes Medrano is an independent journalist in southern Arizona, where she writes about immigration, underserved communities, the environment and other matters of importance in both the U.S. and neighboring Mexico. A 2020-21 Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, she has written for various publications, including the Washington Post, Undark Magazine, The Atlantic and Audubon Magazine. She speaks English and Spanish. Reach her via Twitter direct message or LinkedIn.