By Susan Sorensen
If it’s a quiet afternoon on Sixth Street, you can hear the bees before you spot them, going about their business in a lush green swath of native plants lining the sidewalk near Monticello Avenue. Not far away, you’ll notice strawberry plants and blueberry bushes, as well as apple, pear, and plum trees. Glance down the hill, next to the Friendship Court basketball hoops, and you’ll see row after row of tomato plants and other veggies, all put in the ground by the Urban Agriculture Collective of Charlottesville.
The UACC is made up of three community gardens, located at Sixth, South First, and West streets. Those gardens produce as many as 18,000 pounds of fresh produce annually, and every bit of the harvest is distributed (in exchange for working in the garden) during rotating Friday afternoon markets at Crescent Halls, Friendship Court, and the communities at Sixth and South First streets.
Richard Morris, the farm and foodroots program director for the UACC, which was started in 2007 and partnered with City Schoolyard Garden in 2018, says the goal of the gardens is simple: Grow fresh foods in a community space for people who might not normally have access to them, and bring a wide range of people together in the process.
“We rely a lot on volunteerism,” he says, adding that gardeners receive one wooden token for every half hour worked. Each token earns its owner a bag of vegetables that would cost between $15 and $30 at a grocery store. If you can’t use your token, you’re welcome to give it to a relative or friend, or drop it in a community jar for someone else to pick up goods on market day.
Morris says the UACC’s volunteers comprise “a very diverse group of people not just helping out in the fields, but during our market days,” which also serve as a time for people to visit, share recipes, and participate in cooking demonstrations. Every Wednesday afternoon, for example, a group of teens arrives to assist with anything from planting to maintenance to harvesting. In addition to helping feed people, the kids “acquire basic job skills,” Morris says. “They build relationships, learn how to work cooperatively, be responsible, and show up on time.”
“We all see the value of public parks—nice, pretty, green spaces,” he says. “And we’re a public park that produces food. Everybody benefits from it because it benefits everyone.”