Yuki Zheng, UVA Office for Sustainability Student Employee

Charlottesville is a leader in addressing food justice as various organizations in the city work towards building a healthy and just food system. The New Roots program of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) specifically supports food justice for our Charlottesville refugee community. According to the UN Refugee Agency, refugees are “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.” Prior to my internship at New Roots, I didn’t realize how many refugees lived in our community. New Roots recognizes the importance and connection to food that many refugees share. Seven farm and garden locations around Charlottesville are dedicated to providing land and sanctuary for IRC refugee gardeners. I joined IRC this summer as the New Roots Communications Coordinator Intern. Due to COVID-19, the sense of community dwindled in the gardens, so we had to find ways to safely and effectively connect with our refugee gardeners. 

Four people standing in front of a canopied picnic area, with red canopies draped over wooden poles
New Roots workers in front of the harvest celebration

One of my responsibilities was to create bi-weekly newsletters on our program. We thought it would be a great idea to spotlight our gardeners so that we can learn and share their stories. Interview after interview, I was amazed by the personal relationships our gardeners had with the food they grow. Having endured violence and deprivation, they all found comfort and joy in the gardens. In almost all of the interviews, the gardeners always stressed how much they enjoyed having the space to choose what types of food to grow. For many, being able to grow their own fresh food was important to maintain and share their cultural backgrounds and traditions with their families. Because of this, family gardeners were my favorite to interview. I also found it fascinating how many gardeners gained a sense of independence with New Roots. Many took up leadership positions in the gardens, helped interpret for me when communicating with gardeners who did not speak English, and supported our programming to rebuild the New Roots community. Some gardeners also told me that their favorite part about gardening was meeting other refugees and New Roots volunteers. We held volunteer workdays throughout the growing season to allow the Charlottesville community to learn about the program and engage with our refugee gardeners.

New Roots collage consisting of various people gardening and photos of plants and flowers from the garden
Promotional collage made for the gardeners and volunteers

New Roots gardeners were still able to find solace in their gardens amidst COVID-19 challenges. The gardens served as a source of food security, an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, and a safe space to spend time with family and friends. Not only did gardening help many of our gardeners save money on produce, but some of our advanced gardeners were also able to sell their food to the Charlottesville Food Justice Network. This was especially empowering as they were able to provide healthy, fresh produce to others in our community facing food insecurity due to COVID-19.

Connecting with our refugee community has increased my appreciation and comprehension of local food justice efforts. Being a part of the UVA Sustainable Food Collaborative, formerly known as the Sustainable Food Strategy Task Force, I coordinate a group of UVA and Charlottesville community members in achieving our sustainable and equitable food goals. We work closely with the UVA Office for Sustainability, UVA Dine, Cultivate Charlottesville, and many other local organizations that are interested in food justice. I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to bring in my perspective from working at New Roots into the Collaborative. I’ve been fortunate to work directly on food justice efforts in different capacities and it has strengthened my passion for building just systems for those most marginalized. I hope to continue this work beyond UVA and the Charlottesville community, and look forward to pursuing food justice in my future endeavors.