Locally-sourced, organic, natural, free range; these are all the latest buzzwords around farming and eating that we are inundated with every day.

Yet, despite all the media and hype, millions of Americans continue to live in food wastelands – an area where there is no decent grocery store, no farmer’s markets and no access to any fresh fruit or vegetables. In those mostly urban areas, residents never get to experience a picking a tomato off the vine, watching corn grow on the stalk or feeling the earth in their hands.

Urban farming is nothing new. Even the Egyptians were involved in some form of it. Those of us from the oldest generation recall “Victory Gardens” from WWII and many other countries are way ahead of the United States with urban gardening-friendly cities. From extensive rooftop gardens to small containers on a porch, urban farming is, pardon the pun, growing.

The Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments (VINES) project in Binghamton, N.Y. is working to change the face of urban farming for smaller cities around the country and they are successfully conquering the wasteland using a smaller, upstate New York city as their canvas. Amelia Lodolce, a staff member at VINES, has farming in her blood.

“I’m an avid gardener and backyard chicken keeper and I love growing, cooking, eating, and sharing good food with others,” she said.

Lodolce grew up in Chenango County, N.Y. After living in and traveling to places ranging from Boston to Nepal to Arizona, she missed the Southern Tier and decided to return. There, she got involved with a group of people starting the Binghamton Urban Farm, a subproject of VINES. She now works as a volunteer, board member and employee with VINES.

According to their website, VINE’s mission is to develop a sustainable and just community food system by creating community gardens, urban markets and green spaces. Originally formed in 2007, the nonprofit organization currently manages seven community garden sites as well as programs such as Binghamton Urban Farm (BUF), Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), Green Thumbs Educational Workshop Series and Binghamton Farm Share (BFS).

The community gardens provide more than 100 raised beds for community members to grow food at a minimal rental fee. BUF has transformed four vacant urban lots totaling around half an acre into productive garden space and makes fresh fruits and vegetables available to the local community. In addition to the gardens, VINES has provided youth development and training through its SYEP at the BUF site for five seasons, employing more than 75 local youth and educating them in gardening and farming techniques as well as marketing, public relations and sales.

“SYEP not only provides city youth with job training and a weekly paycheck but also teaches youth about a healthy diet, food production and educates them on food system issues,” Lodolce said.

Through its Green Thumbs Educational Workshop Series, VINES provides ongoing food production and preservation education that is free and open to the public. Lodolce stresses that it is not enough to just teach people to grow their food; those in the program need to be educated about how to handle, cook and preserve food.

The Binghamton Farm Share was started with the goal of increasing access to healthy, affordable local food while also supporting local farmers. The farm share program distributes weekly shares of produce through VINES and a network of rural farms to low-income Binghamton residents. Farm Share makes local produce more accessible by offering share discounts to income eligible local residents, accepting SNAP benefits, offering biweekly and monthly payment options and providing recipes, cooking tips and cooking classes to residents.

According to Lodolce, it is a modified CSA program designed to serve people of all incomes. Similar to a traditional CSA, customers of BFS pick-up a box or “share” of fresh vegetables and fruit produced by a local farm weekly throughout the growing season. Additionally, low to moderate income members can pay half the cost for each share as their payment is matched dollar for dollar through grant funds.

Members unable to finance their share can draw on the “share bank” to cover the cost of that week’s produce up to two times. This allows financially unstable customers to remain in the program without impacting the income of farmers.

In its pilot year, BFS served 30-35 shares per week in its peak. In member surveys, 53 percent of members reported having children that regularly ate from the share and 100 percent reported learning to eat or prepare new vegetables. Over 80 percent of those in the BFS program consumed more vegetables during the program as compared to pre-program. Members reported eating healthier, increasing their vegetable consumption and decreasing their grocery bill.

AmeriCorps member Isaish Barker working at Binghamton Urban Farm with the young volunteers.

In 2014, BFS distributed over 80 shares per week at the peak of the growing season. Based on their data, the average household size of their shareholders was 2.3 people, which means they served approximately 184 people. In addition to the obvious benefit to the individual and families who participated in the program, BFS also generated over $25,000 in income for local farmers who participated by distributing their shares to area residents that might not normally have access to a farm share because of geographic location, finances or other obstacles.

The VINES program has stayed open and accessible to both participants and farmers. BFS doesn’t require their partner farms to be organic. Right now, two farms are organic and two are not.

“We feel that it is best to offer our customers the choice and let them decide,” Lodolce said. “Each of our partner farms has their own strengths and reasons why a customer would choose to get a share for them and we relay the information to our customers so they can pick the share and farm that are right for their needs.”

Former Youth Program and Community Garden Manager Lauren Tonti

With the programming VINES offers for young people, program staff and volunteers do a lot of outreach and recruitment through the Binghamton City School District and partner organizations that work with youth. Most of the young people involved with the organization have never had any experience with gardening, but according to Lodolce, they are interested in having a summer job that gives them a sense of purpose and an opportunity to give back to the community.

“We really enjoy the youth we get to work with, we learn a lot from them and vice versa,” Lodolce noted. “We actually think that a lot of youth are into gardening, they just don’t know it until they try it.”

VINES finds that the number of people interested in growing their own food or buying locally is on the rise. These efforts contribute to a greater sense of vitality in the area, economically and physically.

Yet as with any urban farming program, there are some challenges. Complaints from neighbors, strict zoning codes and theft can hinder the expansion of urban garden projects. Despite these setbacks, VINES is dedicated to improving the health of their community.

One of the many successful urban gardens in Binghamton via the hard work of the Volunteers Improving Neighborhood Environments project (VINES).

“We hope to see our work have a measurable impact in improving food security, the health of the community residents and gardeners we work with and the economic vitality of our partner farms,” Lodolce said.

To contact the VINES project you can access their website at http://www.vinesgardens.org/ or call 607-205-8108.

Cover and photos by VINES AmeriCorps Gardening