Building a community food system in Hazelwood | The Homepage


A green mass of tomato plants hides a light-skinned man in a straw sun hat. A dark-skinned girl with half of her dark hair pulled into a topknot wears a light pink t-shirt and bright pink leggings. She and the man are tying the tomato plants to stakes. In the foreground a dark-skinned young boy with full cheeks, short-cropped black hair and a black t-shirt is partly turned away from the viewer. In the background is a large recessed window in a modern-looking building.
In August, Matt Peters, community gardens manager for Hazelwood Initiative, taught kids at the Carnegie Library Hazelwood branch how to care for garden tomatoes. The ones shown here are the Strati variety, a Hazelwood heirloom variety. Photo by Elsa Buehler

By Ziggy Edwards


Some of Hazelwood’s most exciting growth is coming from the ground up — literally. Local gardeners are building a network of neighbors and organizations doing their best to make sure everyone in Hazelwood has food to eat. Throughout August I spoke with some of the people who contribute to our community food system.


Growing a network

Matt Peters, community garden manager for Hazelwood Initiative, supports three gardens.

“Each garden has its own purpose and personality,” he said. The garden on Monongahela Street behind Three Rivers Village School offers allotments where families can grow their own food. This year, 11 families reserved plots. The Glen Hazel community garden on Johnston Avenue at Roselle Drive, started by community members, lets residents grow fresh food close to home.


Longtime Hazelwoodian Jim McCue started Everybody's Garden on West Elizabeth Street in 2008. Its proximity to a playground and public library makes it an ideal outdoor classroom where children can get hands-on experience with nature. Hazelwood Initiative supports the garden and Mr. Peters organizes volunteer workdays.


The workdays are one of the ways Mr. Peters creates connections within the community food system. He also introduces Hazelwood Initiative to partners like Grow Pittsburgh, Grounded Strategies, Carnegie Library Hazelwood, and Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. He introduced me to Jasmine Pope, Homegrown's community outreach coordinator.


The Homegrown program, run by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, installs raised-bed vegetable gardens at participating households and helps people learn to maintain their gardens. The program is open exclusively to residents of Hazelwood this year and has built seven so far.


“This is our first summer in Hazelwood,” said Ms. Pope. “It has a big urban agriculture scene we’re excited to support.”


The journey from farm to table

Dianne Shenk, owner of Dylamato’s Market on Second Avenue, plays a similar connecting role in a different part of the system. She noted the surge in food production in Hazelwood, but said bottlenecks can interfere with aggregating and distributing food because growers may lack the special equipment to process food, and processors may not have a way to sell it.


Ms. Shenk started Dylamato’s with an eye toward opening that bottleneck in Hazelwood. She said she is happy to buy produce from local growers and encourages them to approach her directly or work with programs like Homegrown to make the connection.


“I’m interested in promoting that kind of thing,” Ms. Shenk said.


Lisa Reihl, community outreach coordinator for the Hazelwood YMCA, told me about the food pantry run out of the Spartan Center on the first Saturday of each month. They try to have fresh produce for at least 30% of their selection. “During the summer, we always make it,” she said.


The volunteer-run food pantry works with local organizations, including Fishes and Loaves Cooperative Ministries and the Greenfield Parent-Teacher Organization, to distribute any remaining food.


Where food begins again

Sometimes produce arrives at the food pantry rotten or damaged. And every kitchen has scraps. Those food scraps can be composted to make healthier soil that grows more food.

“I want so much for people not to be wasting their waste,” said Mr. McCue, who counts composting among his top passions.


That is where involveMINT and Worm Return come in. Daniel Little, involveMINT’s CEO, and dedicated volunteer Valerie Morgan gave me a tour of the composting facility at the end of Sylvan Avenue. They recently installed solar panels to power tools like a leaf blower and a mixer that tumbles compost.


Mr. Little said the houses that once stood there left contaminants like lead in the soil. The organization installed barriers to prevent them from leaching into the compost.


“We’re converting unusable land to usable land,” Mr. Little added.


The community compost gets material from Worm Return, a local business that collects food waste from Dylamato’s and other local businesses and households. They provide some waste to involveMINT and use the rest to feed worms that cycle it back into soil.


Similarly, volunteers for involveMINT cycle resources back into the community. They call themselves ChangeMakers. In exchange for their work, about 30 ChangeMakers earn community currency credits to spend at participating local businesses like Dylamato’s.


It takes a neighborhood

The aim of building a community food system is to create food security by supplementing, not replacing, the corporate supply chains we rely on now.


Ms. Shenk noted that local produce is only available for about six months a year in Pittsburgh, and some crops, like coffee and oranges, do not grow here.


Mr. Peters also has a realistic outlook on the limits of any community food system. “No matter how many urban farms you have,” he said, “you still won’t have [local] strawberries on the shelf all year long.”


But he remains optimistic about the neighborhood’s ability to produce food.


“It’s a start!” said Mr. Peters of Hazelwood’s progress toward greater self-sufficiency. “And if everyone’s doing it, it will make a difference.”


Ziggy Edwards is a writer, editor, resident of Four Mile Run and regular contributor to The Homepage.

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