Gardening as Food Sovereignty: My experience as summer intern with VCGN

by Liza Greene

Hello! My name is Liza Greene and this summer I was the SHECP Garden Education and Food Access Intern for the Vermont Community Garden Network. I first learned about VCGN through a nationwide program that my college partners with called the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP). Through collaborating with universities and agencies across the Eastern United States, SHECP encourages the study of poverty as a complex structural issue and expands the opportunity for college students to gain experience in a wide range of disciplines and careers. As a sociology major focusing in poverty studies at Hamilton College, I had the opportunity to apply to SHECP last December and thus began my journey to interning with the Vermont Community Garden Network this summer. 

Food sovereignty. The first time I heard these two words together was this past spring semester as I was sitting in my Environmental Justice class at Hamilton. Food sovereignty; not access, not security, but sovereignty. At the time, my professor defined each of these terms, explaining how each are essential in the mission to attain food justice, while respectively being different in meaning. It wasn’t until this summer interning with VCGN that I began to truly understand how critical the aspect of sovereignty is to establishing food equity, social justice, and livelihood. 

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to work with a range of communities across Burlington through co-leading and assisting with a series of garden education programs. I have worked closely with garden education director, Carolina, and the two other garden education interns, Isabel and Sharon, to design garden-based lesson plans that accommodate the varying levels of abilities, positionalities, and interests of program participants. In any given week, we visited and either led or supported other leaders in activities at five different sites: the Co-op Victory Garden located at the Intervale, the Ethan Allen Senior Residence, the Family Room located at the Ethan Allen Homestead, Gardening For Health at the UVM Medical Center Rooftop Gardens, and housing site gardens in Washington and Addison Counties. 

When I first began the internship, I knew very little about gardening – in terms of materials and methods, but also in regard to the far deeper-rooted impact it has the potential to foster. I predicted how gardening would be crucial to establishing access to healthy food across numerous homes and dinner tables, yet this prediction alone does not nearly encompass the significance of community gardens and garden education. While food access is essential, this alone cannot necessarily tackle why food systems produce inequitable access to food to begin with. Gardening not only secures this access to food, but it does so in a way which provokes responsibility among gardeners, inducing pride and empowerment in providing for oneself. Through interning with VCGN, I have been fortunate to get a glimpse at the raw joy that gardening can bring to individuals, regardless of age, ability, or motivating reason to garden in the first place. There is something so special about planting a seed and knowing that seed’s growth and production is something you can control and provide. Gardening is food sovereignty, and VCGN is a critical platform to ensuring that sovereignty is accessible and guided through community. 

As I write this, I am sitting in the Burlington Airport, about to board a plane to return to my home in Utah. Last night I said farewell to Burlington, and all of the wonderful friends it has brought me this summer at the Co-op Victory Garden monthly potluck. Upon saying goodbye to Sharon and Isabel, who I have work side by side with almost every day this summer, I found myself brought to tears. As the three of us embraced, Sharon exclaimed, “you are both officially invited to my future wedding!” We pulled back, all giggling, yet somehow knowing it could very well be true. The community of people I have met at VCGN this summer feels like forever – bonded by the passion to fuel our own bellies with fresh veggies from the garden, as well as the hope and commitment to encourage that same love for gardening among community members all across Burlington and the greater Vermont population. 

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