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In Springfield, Liz O'Gilvie takes on food deserts — and food swamps — through policy and gardening

Liz O'Gilvie (left), chair of the Springfield Food Policy Council, is shown here in 2017 with Zenaida Figueroa, a longtime cook for the schools in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Ben James
Liz O'Gilvie (left), chair of the Springfield Food Policy Council, is shown here in 2017 with Zenaida Figueroa, a longtime cook for the schools in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Food deserts are a symptom, not the disease. That's according to Liz O'Gilvie of the Springfield Food Policy Council, as well as Gardening the Community.

O'Gilvie has made it her mission to address hunger and a shortage of fresh foods in western Massachusetts' largest city, including the Mason Square neighborhood.

As our Hunger Awareness Week continues, O'Gilvie spoke to The Fabulous 413. The real disease, she said, should be called food apartheid.

Liz O’Gilvie, Springfield Food Policy Council: In this country, most low-income communities are poor communities. I use words like poor because it's not a bad word, and it's not indicative about the people who live there. It's about the state of things and our comfort as a country with having an underclass.

So food deserts are just a symptom. And Mason square is absolutely one of the largest. And for a while I talked about the area as a food swamp, because there's stuff here that passes for food and it's not cheap.

But when the Mason Square Health Task Force collected receipts, it was to demonstrate to retailers like Big Y that folks were spending their money and it would be a viable enterprise. It still didn't work out, and it didn't work out for a number of reasons. At that time, they just didn't want to be here. You know, we just have to tell some really hard truths about who wants to serve who. So GTC said, we don't have it. We're going to make it.

Monte Belmonte, NEPM: And GTC is Gardening the Community, if you haven't been following.

Yep. At the same time, the Springfield Food Policy Council was working on policy changes. And so we helped lead a community gardening ordinance through our City Council that got approved, that made it legal for GTC — Gardening The Community — to grow food. And we were teaching young people how to grow food.

Kaliis Smith, NEPM: So, Liz, one of the first experiences I had after moving to Springfield was going to the McKnight District Neighborhood meeting, where they were discussing the revamp of Magazine Park. And you would come specifically to suggest that they plant edible plants as part of their overall scheme. Is part of your work with the Springfield Food Policy Council to get the city to think more about the possibility of planting more edible plants on its grounds and parks, in general?

That's exactly— I'm so glad you reminded me of that, because that means I need to call our director of parks and rec, Pat Sullivan, to remind him.

You know, we used to have these amazing mulberry trees when I was a kid. And they were everywhere. And every kid had a purple-stained face, and we also had purple-stained sidewalks. And we had a mayor who didn't like them.

Monte Belmonte: Dr. Seuss made it famous in this city.

Yeah, but they cut them all down. And then ReGreen, a friend and a partner, started planting trees, and I'm like, why aren't we planting fruit trees? We don't really need any more oak trees.

And there's this idea that, well, the fruit will litter the ground, and I know it won't because I have blackberry bushes planted all around a lot that's next to my house. It was actually the homestead of Primus Mason, and I converted it into a little food forest and grow everything there.

And from that lot, I've been able to help meet the need of some new residents who don't come with what we think of as traditional documentation. And imagine, berries. I planted blackberry bushes because there's a bus stop on the corner where this lot is, and keep yogurt containers. And when I see a family out there waiting for the bus, I run out with a container, ask mom if it's OK, tell the kids to try a berry, and then tell them to pick away. That's as satisfying as any grant I ever write or am awarded.

Hear an extended version of this interview on The Fabulous 413 podcast.

It’s Hunger Awareness Week on 88.5 NEPM, exploring stories about hunger in our region to better understand this crisis and what’s being done to combat it. Learn more about hunger in western Massachusetts at nepm.org/hunger.

Christopher “Monte'' Belmonte is host and executive producer of NEPM's The Fabulous 413. He was born and raised in Massachusetts and has been a radio host in western Massachusetts for the last 20 years — the last 17 of them as host of Mornings with Monte on The River 93.9/WRSI.
Kaliis Smith is a radio host and producer for NEPM's The Fabulous 413. She was most recently host and producer at The River 93.9/WRSI where she appeared on Mornings with Monte for the Nerdwatch segment and hosted weekday evenings.
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