Rock Island community gardens offer immigrants, refugees more than just a place to plan produce

ROCK ISLAND, Illinois-- Almost every day, Uwimana Fitina is out in her garden, tending to her crops. She's one of several dozen people part of the Rock Island Community Garden program.

"I come do my garden. I'm not ever home. I live for my garden," she laughs.

She's growing half a dozen different plants this year, from green beans and eggplant to plants she brought from her home in Africa.

"There's too much food from my country," Fitina says. "So much food from my country. I like the food from my country."

Fitina has grown her roots in Rock Island for 11 years. She immigrated from Burundi 13 years ago, bringing with her culture and cuisine.

On top of that, the community garden has given dozen of people like Fitina a chance to grow their own roots here.

"Our gardeners are not doing this as a hobby or as a free time exercise," Rock Island Planning and Redevelopment Administrator Miles Brainard says. "This is about feeding their families."

Brainard says there are 24 lots on four and a half acres of land throughout the city. Last year they grew 10 tons of food.

"It's really not perhaps the kind of garden people imagine," he says. "It's not a collection of raised beds for people to leisurely tend to. These are very serious spaces that people are very proud and intense about."

He says many people grow their crops to supplement groceries they buy. He adds many are immigrants and refugees of a lower socioeconomic status.

"Being able to tend some of the crops they recognize from home and engage in an activity they would've done at home is a great comfort to them," he says.

The program also benefits Rock Island as a whole. The lots would otherwise sit empty after old buildings were demolished. The city leases the empty lots to put them to good use, and Brainard says it saves landowners money not having to mow the grass.

However, gardeners do run into challenges. There are pieces of concrete and metal leftover from demolition they have to remove when planting. Brainard says there are often high levels of lead in the soil. The crops help to remove that contaminate.

For Fitina, she says she enjoys having a chance to provide food from home for her family and friends.

Brainard says there is a long waitlist of people wanting a plot in the community gardens. He says the city is always open to leasing more vacant property.

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