In Asheville’s thirst for sustainability, it's easy to forget that a third of the city's workers are low-wage, and in some neighborhoods, survival is the top priority. The obstacles to pondering a sustainable future — then trying to create it — can seem daunting.
That’s where Olufemi Lewis and Itiyopiya Ewart come in. As gardeners, activists and Hillcrest residents, they aim to create Ujamaa Freedom Mobile Market, a worker-owned business that brings healthy food to the areas that need it. Ujamaa means "cooperative economics" in Swahili. Its participants will share the work and the rewards, Lewis and Ewart explain.
“We want [our neighbors] to see that even though you have limited resources, you can still create something where you're working for yourself,” Lewis points out.
Too often, healthy foods are unavailable in neighborhoods where the closest sources for groceries are convenience stores, and even when healthier fare is available, it's unaffordable. Trucks and buses sometimes visit those neighborhoods, selling junk or snack food, the women mention. Ujamaa presents an alternative: Lewis and Ewart plan to offer fresh produce, health information, cooking classes and more to some of the city’s poorest residents. They also want to demonstrate what two ordinary women can do — and how to close the gap between working-class, lower-income groups and the rest of Asheville.
“For communities to be sustainable, we're going to have to [show] we can work for ourselves,” says Lewis.
Both women say that philosophy is key forthose they hope to involve in the project — people who, like them, have faced challenges but have an eye to the future.
Lewis, despite earning nursing certifications from A-B Tech, found the door shut to a career because of her misdemeanor assault conviction in 2002. Ewart has been homeless.
Together, they hope to connect their neighborhood to a more viable economic network. Community gardens, they explain, can provide the produce and Ujamaa, in turn, can spark much-needed revenue for participants.
“We're creating a cooperative-style business to address food-access issues and the financial struggles we've personally had,” Lewis says. “We want to create employment for ourselves, being worker-owners, not just working for the cause, but seeing some financial rewards for it.”
Ewart sums up their perspective, noting, “Kale is too expensive. So go grow your own kale.”
The big disconnect
To make their dream a reality, Ewart and Lewis have shared their ideas with the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council and a variety of people and groups, from nonprofits to fellow activists. Both remark that they’ve stepped into a new world, marked by differences in backgrounds and perceptions.
“Meetings, meetings, meetings. My daughter tells me I'm drowning in meetings,” Lewis says with a long laugh, shaking her head.
The friends have observed that some sustainability activists “can tell you about their fabulous vacation in South America or to the Swiss Alps or the beaches of South France,” says Ewart.
“It's a big disconnect,” says Lewis, who has lived in Hillcrest for 10 years and finds the prospect of another 10 “not sustainable.” In many discussions with other community leaders, she notes, many ideas and initiatives assume a level of resources and services many working-class and lower-income people simply don't have.
Ewart says, “When you're experiencing poverty you're looked down on,” even by some in the sustainability activism community, and even though others share their conviction that gaps can be bridged and that there’s a better future for the community at large. She also remarks that the sense of urgency is not the same for others as it is for her. “Let's stop talking, having all these meetings, and move forward with a plan to get something sustainable in action.”
Determined to make Ujamaa a reality, Ewart and Lewis keep coming back to the meetings, listening, speaking and hoping for action and support.
“There's a lot of talk,” Lewis says. “And at the end of the day, I go back to Hillcrest.”
And yet, both women possess a gardener’s optimism. “It's growing season,” says Lewis. With spring in the air, she's spending a lot of her time outside, in the Hillcrest Unity Garden.
In part, Ujamaa sprung from the idea of a “green” network: There are community gardens in Shiloh, Burton Street, Pisgah View, West Asheville and many other city neighborhoods. Food — and the act the growing food — bring people of all backgrounds together, connecting them through a common desire to live more sustainably, Lewis and Ewart have noticed.
“Everyone's interested in growing their own,” Lewis says. That urge may help break down some of the old barriers. Everyone wants “to know where [our food] comes from, how it was grown, how we can be healthier.”
Speaking of old ways and habits, she mentions, “I was one of those kids that grew up eating the sugary cereals.”
“Part of my family was like that too,” Ewart says. “Food is a big aspect — access to space, health care.” She adds, “A job is one way to have some pride in earning and supporting yourself and your family. To access food that's affordable and not feel all crazy because your body's twisted, that's a big change. There are so many facets to sustainability.”
Lewis pitches in, concluding, “Sustainability is multiple systems working together to help each individual; it's one hand washing the other.” X
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or email@example.com.