Most people do not realize that there is a desert in Connecticut. According to German Cutz, sustainable families and communities extension educator, there is one in Fairfield County, and he is trying to eliminate it. It is a food desert.
The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service defines food deserts as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food.” Cutz identified several food desert areas in Danbury, Bridgeport and Norwalk and noted that such conditions are common in urban cities. “Often, two factors are at work. They are the lack of transport, which limits access to food, and the quantity of fresh food supplied,” said Cutz.
Connecting Urban People and Agriculture
Cutz is addressing food deserts while connecting urban people with agriculture. He wants to teach people to grow food, give them a hands-on agricultural experience and encourage local entrepreneurship. His new Extension program, called Urban Agriculture and IPM Training, works with Hispanic adults, who are living in the urban cities of Fairfield County.
The specific objective of the training is to produce fresh food locally and to sell it in the food desert areas of Fairfield County. In order to reach that goal, those receiving the training have access to one acre of land at Candlelight Farms, a partner in New Milford, Connecticut. In addition, Cutz will register the class as a Danbury farmers’ market vendor so that students can sell the produce they grow and gain a hands-on entrepreneurial experience. Cutz has plans to expand the farmers’ market effort to other cities later.
“We know that urban agriculture is a good venue to provide entrepreneurship opportunities to urban residents while, at the same time, allowing them to supply fresh food to their own neighborhoods,” Cutz said.
Gaining Scientific Knowledge
The adult students gain scientific knowledge through four, 10-week training modules taught in Spanish. The first module, botany, started without funding and had 14 students enrolled. Twelve of those people completed the rigorous module that included testing on 200 plants. For the test, participants learned the scientific names of plants and how to identify the plants by their leaves, seeds and shapes. This included trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables representing 50 families of plants. The training uses sections of the existing UConn Master Gardener curriculum, which Cutz has customized and translated into Spanish.
Next, the participants will go through the remaining vegetable production, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and entomology modules with Ana Legrand, an assistant extension professor in entomology and member of the UConn IPM team. The IPM module emphasizes lower-risk pest management techniques and organic production methods.
Partnering with Supporters
Cutz obtained outside funding for those three modules from the Northeastern IPM Center, which promotes and funds integrated pest management for environmental, human health and economic benefits. Financial support from the Crop Insurance and Risk Management Education Program for Connecticut Agricultural Producers goes toward translation of the curriculum into Spanish.
Further assistance is provided by Nuestras Raíces (Our Roots, in English), which will host the participants and interact with them about organic farming. According to their website, “Nuestras Raíces is a grassroots organization that promotes human, economic, and community development in Western Massachusetts, through projects relating to food, agriculture and the environment.”
Registration for the vegetable production module of the Urban Agriculture and IPM Training is still open. More information about this program, which meets from 7 PM to 10 PM on Thursdays at the Fairfield County Extension Center in Bethel, is available from Cutz. Next year, he will continue his efforts by training a new group of participants to address the food desert issue with him.
By Patsy Evans