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Angels Among Us 2013

Angels Among Us 2013
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Yankee profiles three New Englanders who are making an extraordinary difference in others’ lives.

Farm to Table
Bleu Grijalva & Emily Jodka

Bleu Grijalva and Emily Jodka pack a passion for local food that extends far beyond what they bring to their own plates. As founders of The New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the pair has spent the past three years spreading their message and knowledge to the sorts of neighborhoods and residents whom the locavore movement has largely overlooked: families in poorer urban areas, whose geographical terrain is marked by fast-food joints and convenience stores.

The seeds for The New Urban Farmers were planted in 2008, when Jodka, who works at Brown University in IT, and Grijalva, a California native who spent 20 years working in the restaurant industry, embarked on the creation of a travel guide to New England’s farms. Logistics helped kill the idea, but so did their realization that the local-food movement largely catered to white, affluent foodies. “So much of the food movement just stops at the city limits,” Grijalva says.

The New Urban Farmers makes its home in a few different areas. In Seekonk, Massachusetts, the group manages a five-acre vegetable farm, where produce is grown to sell at various farmers’ markets. In Warren, Rhode Island, it runs a small orchard, where it has recently planted young apple, pear, and peach trees. But the heart of its work can be found in the Woodlawn section of Pawtucket, at a 500-resident affordable-income housing complex known as Galego Court. There, on the former site of a rundown public park, Jodka and Grijalva oversee one of the most dynamic urban green spaces in all of Rhode Island.

“It’s a farm, it’s a classroom, it’s a place for community, it’s a place for plants,” Jodka explains.

And it really is: raised garden beds stuffed with tomato and pepper plants; rows of greens, herbs, and pumpkins; hillsides bursting with fruit trees and flowers. Inside one of the group’s three greenhouses, staffers are experimenting with hydroponics and farm-raised tilapia. In the spring and summer, kids and parents stream into the space, to help, to tend to their own garden areas, to pick up free food, to just escape the sometimes-complicated urban life that exists outside the garden’s borders.

“There was a bit of a clash,” Grijalva says of their arrival. “They were suspicious about what we were really up to. But as the kids became involved and grew to love it, the parents really warmed to us.”

Today, The New Urban Farmers is an integral member of the Galego community. Money is a constant issue, but the frugally minded Jodka and Grijalva have ensured that their outreach remains a year-round operation. In the winter, the two can be found at the nearby community center, working with kids after school on arts programs and homework support. This past February they launched a free eight-week program in which residents learn about growing and cooking their own food.

On a late spring day their presence is clearly evident. Grijalva is running late to the garden because he’s helping one of the residents move a television set. When he does arrive, he gets there just in time to welcome one of the garden’s regulars, a guy named Miguel, who’s come to tend his pole beans. He’s followed by a neighbor who is looking for tomato plants. “I had planted some,” the man explains, “but then I went away for the weekend, and when I came back they were gone. I asked my neighbor about it, and she said she threw them in the trash.” His face adopts a puzzled look. “She thought I was planting cameras!”

Next comes Dominga, a Dominican Republic native wearing a T-shirt from one of the nonprofit’s annual Earth Day celebrations. She inquires about some kale. “Over here,” Jodka says, walking her over to a bed, where she plucks a big bunch of greens.

But it’s the arrival of 6-year-old Outhi Felix, an energetic kid who’s been a fixture at the garden since he was 2, that puts the biggest smile on Jodka’s and Grijalva’s faces. Within minutes he and Jodka have planted their feet in the children’s garden and are pulling up knotweed.

“Give it a little wiggle,” Jodka instructs as Outhi wrestles with an especially big plant. “Like a tooth.” She starts to help him, trying to free it up, but Outhi soon waves her off. His face grimaces, and then, with one big tug, he manages to pull out a weed that’s nearly as tall as he is. “Boom!” he exclaims triumphantly and throws it. Soon, Outhi becomes the instructor, pushing Jodka to keep up with him. “Come on,” he says. “Get them out of here.”

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Friday, November 15th, 2013

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