How a North Ward community garden enriches neighborhood well-being
Published May 19, 2018 | Kenneth Miles, BrickCityLive.com contributor
Amarylis Olivo poses in the community garden she founded. Photo by Kenneth Miles
The Garden of Worker Bees community garden sits along a bustling block on Broadway and 4th Avenue in Newark’s North Ward, right next to a popular Latin bar and restaurant.
The garden is like a hidden gem in the community, hidden in plain view from many passersby, yet subtly making its presence known when the garden’s bright sunflowers, peach tree, and fragrant mint are in full bloom. While many pedestrians walk by glued to their smartphones, oblivious to the bounty growing behind the steel gate, some do slow down to try and catch a glimpse of what Newark master gardener and food educator, Amarilys Olivo, and her volunteers are up to inside.
“This garden brings people together. It makes you fellowship with one another–different races and different nationalities. It brings a serenity where there is no fussing and no fighting,” said garden volunteer and Clinton Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church program coordinator, Alyce West.
For the past three years West, along with Olivo, has planted produce like corn, squash, beans, strawberries, watermelons, and kale to give back to the garden’s volunteers in acknowledgment of their labor. The purpose of the Garden of Worker Bees, and other community gardens in Newark that have turned vacant lots into green spaces, is to enrich neighborhoods through the beautification stemming from plots full of plants and colorful flowers, and to teach residents the health benefits of eating a seasonal, plant-based diet.
“I never gardened to this extent,” said Olivo, as she pulled weeds from the soil. “When I was younger, I used to visit my family in Puerto Rico, and they had land, and we would have fresh produce trees and that kind of stuff where we grew up. But taking on this garden was another level.”
One of the elements that Olivo incorporates into her garden volunteer program is a nutritional cooking class one Saturday every month. There, volunteers learn how to prepare dishes like fresh collard green rolls stuffed with peppers and other garden-grown veggies. “It doesn’t make sense to come in the garden and plant and grow produce if you go home and don’t know what to do with it,” Olivo said.
After working as a medical office manager for 15 years, Olivo said she got sick of seeing so many people of color come in and out of the doctor’s office she managed and only given what she considered Band-Aid remedies for what ailed them, like prescription pills. Olivo knew she had to do something about it, so she did. But the change didn’t come quick, and it wasn’t easy.
“I worked for a Haitian doctor, and a lot of our patients were Haitian or from the Caribbean, definitely a lot of Hispanic patients, so of course they are at a higher risker for diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease,” said Olivo.
Olivo tends the Garden of Worker Bees. Photo by Kenneth Miles
She continued: “Those [diseases] affect people of color more than other populations. I think a lot of people eat, and they don’t realize how it affects their health overall.”
When Olivo was laid off from her job she decided to enroll at Rutgers University in Newark to study business. After interning at Newark City Hall, her supervisors offered her the opportunity to adopt a lot in Newark for a $1 annual fee through the city’s Adopt-a-Lot program. That offer proved to be a life-changing decision for both Olivo and the North Ward. After years of battling obesity and seeing many patients prescribed medicine without being empowered to change their diet and lifestyle, Olivo knew the Garden of Worker Bees could be a place where she could combine her passion for education and her love of gardening. That’s because some residents who live in urban areas like Newark do not have easy access to fresh, quality foods and, as a consequence, their health may suffer.
“I don’t think people realize that if you have a condition like obesity, it is not something that happens to you overnight, so I’m not going to lose weight overnight, either. It takes time to learn how to eat healthy. We have to learn to undo the American commercialization and marketing that’s been targeted towards us eating the wrong way,” Olivo said.
Volunteers who work in the garden on Saturday mornings weeding, planting, and sifting through soil get an opportunity to learn how to grow their own food and prepare nutritious meals with companion cooking classes taught by local chefs at the nearby Clinton Memorial A.M.E Church kitchen.
“With all of the E. coli, pesticides, and cloning going on in the world, we need to go back to growing food for ourselves and be able to taste all of the nutrients that comes out of growing it. [It’s an] experience that you can share with your children and grandchildren,” said West. Volunteers who come into the garden are a diverse mix of people, from teenagers to senior citizens to children with autism, who find gardening to be a form of therapy. The Garden of Worker Bees boasts 20 beds of produce, flowers, and herbs that yield volunteers a bounty of fresh produce in the summer that they can bring home during harvest.
“People actually stop and take notice that it’s a green space that they could come in and identify with, especially if they are from a lot of the Caribbean islands or for the [Hispanic] people in the area who come in and have a déjà vu moment, because it’s like a memory for them of being back home on the island,” Olivo said as she surveyed the beds.
Stay on top of what’s new in Newark. Sign up for Brick City Insider.
In 2017, the Garden of Worker Bees was one of eleven Newark-based organizations to receive one of the Whole Cites Foundation’s Fresh, Healthy Food Access Grants, which enabled the garden to purchase a new fence, an elevated water cistern, and the 20 new raised garden beds.
Looking towards the future, Olivo hopes for the garden to continue to grow in community spirit. “It’s not just about me teaching people how to garden and teach them how to eat healthy, I learn a lot from them. That’s the beauty of the garden, is that we all learn from each other: young, old, Blacks and Latinos. I want the garden to have an exponential reach so that more people become involved and for people to say that, ‘I eat healthier now.'”
Kenneth Miles is a graduate of Bloomfield College whose work has appeared in Interview, Paper, Black Enterprise, and The Source magazines. Miles is currently working on his first book. Follow him at mrmiles2you on Instagram and Twitter.