116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As a young girl growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Debora Merveille Elonga began most days in her family’s garden, where she helped water and harvest vegetables.
Since moving to Cedar Rapids’ southwest quadrant around 2014, though, it’s harder to find traditional ingredients — like ndunda and ngai ngai — for traditional Congolese cuisine, she said. Buying whatever fresh vegetables at the store is often too expensive.
Thanks to a local environmental justice initiative in Cedar Rapids, Elonga can now grow vegetables from her childhood at her own house and share them with her community.
“For me, it’s very special,” she said. “I can have the garden at my house for the first time. … I’m so happy to see my (vegetables) grow up.”
Elonga’s family is one of three immigrant or refugee families in Linn County to have received a cultural community garden this summer. Within the next three years, around 30 gardens will be built on the property of vulnerable community members — gardens that can bolster both food security and cultural ties.
Grow your own food
“We live in Iowa. It's supposed to be this breadbasket of the world, but mostly we grow corn and soybeans that go toward feeding livestock and making ethanol,” said Ayla Boylen, who holds leadership roles in the Sunrise Movement and Our Future Cedar Rapids nonprofits. “I'm really passionate about giving people the tools they need to reclaim the ability to grow their own food.”
Boylen and Linn County sustainability director Tamara Marcus co-chair the local NAACP environmental justice subcommittee, which is leading the cultural community garden effort.
In partnership with the League of United Latin American Citizens Cedar Rapids, the subcommittee applied for and is receiving $17,460 from American Rescue Plan Act funds awarded to Linn County.
That money is going toward the wood, tools and seeds needed to create the cultural community gardens. Some houses also will receive rain barrels to cut down on watering costs.
With the help of a translator, the team is building each garden to fit the family’s needs, hoping to relieve cultural food deserts for immigrants and refugees.
“Connecting all of the resources so they can have the things they want and feed their families healthy, nutritious food that they don't have to pay a lot of money for or travel for … it just seems like such a low effort and a high reward thing,” Boylen said.
Residents may not be aware how cheap and accessible communities gardens can be, Boylen said.
The city of Cedar Rapids is creating a community garden master plan that will led to another seven to 10 gardens. While the average community garden is built on public land, these cultural community gardens are built directly on homeowners’ properties. This helps alleviate issues with water access and eliminates the need to travel for food, Boylen said.
Next year, the group plans to expand its efforts to building the gardens on rental properties.
“It's cool to see that this is something that's happening both in the public and private sectors, and I think there’s space for that to continue to happen,” Marcus said.
It’s hard to estimate how many immigrants and refugees now live in Linn County, said Mugisha Gloire, executive director and founder of United We March Forward.
Between 2012 and 2017, though, 47 percent of the county’s population growth was attributed to immigrants hailing from countries like India, Mexico and Vietnam.
The growing number of community gardens helps immigrants and refugees facing food insecurity — but, in order to fully support the new residents, they need to be paired with other efforts as well, Gloire said.
“We can have so many gardens. But if (immigrants and refugees) don't feel like they can work and make a living, or they don't feel like they can learn the language so they can be part of the community, they're gonna leave,” he said. “All of this stuff is very interconnected.”
Interested in getting a garden?
Families interested in establishing a cultural community garden in their own yard or complex can fill out an inquiry form with the NAACP environmental justice subcommittee.
Brittney J. Miller is an environmental reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.
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