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Sankofa World Market, Gardens, and Community Kitchen

The Challenge

Immigrants and refugees make up 38% of Providence’s West End population. In 2016, the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation (WEHDC) conducted the West End Food Assessment to identify food-related gaps and needs in the West End community – and to locate the resources, services, and systems that could fill those gaps and meet those needs.

Through community-based focus groups, WEHDC found that many immigrant and refugee residents of the West End had limited access to fresh, culturally appropriate fruits and vegetables. In addition, in their home countries these families largely grew and harvested their own produce, but in the States they often did not have access to the land needed for a garden. This lack of access to both produce and land led many immigrants and refugees to choose less healthy diets high in processed foods. As a result, many members of this population become less healthy after transitioning to American life.

The Approach

A committee of community volunteers with experience in urban agriculture, public health, and nutrition joined West Elmwood Housing Development Cooperation to transform abandoned lots into community gardens in 2011. These gardens are open to all WEHDC tenants and West End residents. In 2014, WEHDC broke ground on Sankofa Housing, fifty units of affordable housing with a large community garden on-site. The Sankofa Market started in 2014 as well. The produce grown in the gardens is sold at market weekly throughout the summer and early fall. In 2017, the group expanded their efforts by building a greenhouse. The Sankofa Greenhouse provides growers the opportunity to extend their growing season by cultivating seeds and growing crops in the winter. A shared use community kitchen was established in 2018. The Sankofa Kitchen is RIDOH certified and local food entrepreneurs can use it to start and grow food businesses, renting kitchen space at an affordable cost. The food prepared in the kitchen is sold at the Sankofa Market as well.

By The Numbers

  • 20% of residents living in West Elmwood Housing Development properties grow food in the gardens.
  • 3 gardens and 1 greenhouse are currently located in the West End of Providence
  • 18 Sankofa World Markets were held in 2019
  • 70% of market sales come from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) transactions
  • $4,500 in vendor sales were generated in October 2018

Ensure Food Security for All Rhode Islanders

The Sankofa initiative has transformed the West End of Providence into an international food haven. In doing so, the initiative provides the large immigrant and refugee population access to high-quality, fresh, healthy, culturally appropriate foods.

Program Description

The word “Sankofa” comes from the Twi language of Ghana. It is translated as “go back and get it” and refers to the importance of using knowledge from the past to achieve progress. The Sankofa initiative transforms blighted properties, provides affordable, convenient, culturally appropriate, fresh, healthy, and locally-produced food, expands economic opportunities, and encourages West End residents to meaningfully connect by fostering cultivation of land, lives, and community. Sankofa addresses barriers to fresh produce access among immigrants and refugees using a three-part strategy. First, members of the West Elmwood Housing Development and the surrounding community are given access to community gardens and greenhouse plots. Second, the community members are able to make use of a Department of Health licensed commercial kitchen. Third, Sankofa provides support to residents to get the certifications and licenses required to use a commercial kitchen. Produce grown in the gardens and food prepared in the community kitchen can then be sold throughout the summer months at the Sankofa World Market. By using a multi-level approach, WEHDC enriches the entire community. Perhaps most importantly, since members of the community are both gardeners and customers, the produce grown accurately reflects the diversity and needs of the community. African and Asian items not traditionally found in the area, such as bitter ball, bitter melon, sweet potato greens, bitter leaf, and luffa, are now readily available.

Future Plans

Now that the gardens and market are fully established, Sankofa plans to conduct a new needs assessment within the next three years. This will shed light on additional barriers to food access and healthy eating in the community. They also plan on expanding the use of their community kitchen, encouraging more community members to go beyond selling produce at their market stands. Finally, they will continue to promote and expand the Sankofa World Market so that it can bring access to a larger group of residents and generate more revenue for vendors.

This Rhode Island Story was prepared by Erin Thompson and Dominique Resendes.