How Health in the Hood is working to fight food deserts in Miami

Health in the Hood

We kicked off our series on food deserts and food insecurity a few weeks ago by looking at the history and key terms around the issue, and the factors that add to the problem here in Miami.

Now, we want to highlight some folks finding solutions. First up is the work of Health in the Hood, an organization building community gardens in underserved areas that have historically lacked fresh produce and healthy food options. We spoke with Asha Walker, the organization’s founder and executive director, about her goals and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.

How it got started

Asha grew up eating what her family grew, so it’s not a total surprise that she’s end up growing food in and for Miami. As a kid, she watched her parents use vacant land for farming in Overtown. And after spending some time working with Americorps, she returned home and wrote the grant that helped her start Health in the Hood in 2013. 

They started in Liberty City with three community gardens, then expanded, keeping community stakeholders as involved as they could in every step of the process.

“In each neighborhood we work in, we have partners on the ground and it’s either a church, or the city, or a school, or an after school program,” Asha said. “It was great to have vegetable gardens but if we weren’t really engaging the community they weren’t getting the bang for their buck.”

How things have grown 

In the organization’s first four years, Health in the Hood built six community gardens in Liberty City, Overtown, Opa-locka, Miami Gardens, Pinewood and Little Haiti. 

Each garden kicked off with a big community installation day where they’d plant the gardens and invite neighbors to paint cinder blocks and join in. From there they knocked on doors, gave people a heads up on when they’d deliver supplies to help build the garden, and asked folks if they had gardening experience.

“We [would] hire a garden manager, and in each neighborhood we hire folks to maintain and harvest and do pest control and management,” Asha said.

Since 2017 the gardens have provided fresh, healthy food for those communities while also working as “living classrooms” where partner organizations host events and teach kids about nutrition while letting them get their hands dirty.

Why Miami’s in a unique spot

From Asha’s perspective, food insecurity in SoFla results from a mashup of geographic, social and economic issues.

She points to the gentrification that has transformed Wynwood, the close geographic relationship the area has to Overtown, and how even when a healthy food option comes close to an underserved neighborhood, those neighbors can’t afford it.

“Someone from Overtown is probably not going to go to Joe and the Juice to get a nine dollar juice,” Asha said. “Even though it seems closer, it might not be accessible.”

Asha also thinks that communities need more voices from within those neighborhoods to advocate for them and their needs. But it’s not the easiest thing to prioritize, she said.

“People who are trying to survive and put food on the table, without proper support, it can be a daunting task to advocate for food access,” Asha said.

It’s even tougher, Asha said, when folks outside those areas don’t see what they’re missing. 

“People might know it’s a low-income neighborhood, but there’s a large population that doesn’t know that… the health outcomes are totally different from a wealthier neighborhood,” Asha said. “The idea of not being able to access fresh food is foreign to a lot of people.”

The future of the organization

These days, Health in the Hood wants to take their community gardens on the road.

The biggest boost toward that goal came in 2018, when Health in the Hood was featured on the Facebook Watch show “Returning the Favor.” 

They were given a mobile vegetable pantry after being featured on the show, and that’s allowed them to reach communities beyond their gardens. And Asha said they’re looking to expand into other states.

But don’t worry, their already-established gardens are still getting love.

“Sometimes they’re dormant, but all of our gardens are still viable,” Asha said.

Her hope is that those gardens will continue to support the mobile pantries, and that the communities they’ve worked in will be able to operate their own gardens — and eventually their own stores selling fresh produce — without her organization.

“Our goal,” Asha said, “is to make ourselves obsolete.”