Home Away From Home: Immigrants Creating a “Sense of Place” in Urban Farms and Community Gardens

In discussions of food deserts, food sovereignty, and food insecurity the focus tends to heavily revolve around the issues of limited access to enough food and to healthy foods. Access means that there are barriers to an adequate amount of healthy foods due to distance and obstacles relating to distance, like inadequate transportation or time, and also high prices. But in these discussions another element that isn’t as deeply explored are culturally relevant foods and peoples access to them. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance defines Food Sovereignty as the “…right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Food Sovereignty 2007). So what does “culturally appropriate food” mean and why are they important in this discussion? 

Culture and Food

Women Cooking at South Central Farm.

Food holds deep ties to our culture. The kinds of foods we eat and show preference for play a role in our identity. Certain dishes, ingredients, and preparation practices are unique to individual cultures and can carry distinct meanings to a group of people and individuals. Food can be tied to traditions, play roles in holidays, and much more. Within the U.S., depending on the location, culturally important foods to certain groups of people can be very limited and hard to access.  The U.S. hosts a diverse number of cultures that are tied to unique foods and food related practices and within the immigrant population this can hold a great significance in creating a sense of place.

“Sense of Place” & The Role of Urban Farms

A Plot at South Central Farm with Shade Structure, Table, and Seating.

The term “Sense of Place” is a concept within urban design in which place is defined as a location in which people hold a connection between themselves and that location. This connection is defined by the “physical settings, individual and group activities, and meanings” (Najafi & Shariff 2011). “Sense of Place” can be described as the “…overarching impression encompassing the general ways in which people feel about places, senses it, and assign concepts and values to it” (Najafi & Shariff 2011).

People who have immigrated to the U.S. can often lose all “sense of place” as they lack a connection or bond to their new home. Immigrants within the U.S. face many issues dealing with anxieties and fears relating to deportation and also feeling of isolation from their new communities and a loss of family connections (Kanstroom 2010). In California around 26.7% of the population is foreign-born (Census profile 2019). 

Urban farms can become a solution to immigrant communities’ lack of a sense of place. Culturally significant plants can evoke memories of “home” as they mimic the ecology of a person’s country of origin. Urban farms can be sites where immigrant communities can gather together and share common experiences. Shared activities like holiday celebrations, music, singing, talking, cooking, teaching, and play can help to foster a sense of place (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2015). Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California, studied two community gardens that had a high level of immigrant participation within Los Angeles, “Franklin” and “Dolores Huerta” community gardens. She discovered that these participants felt that the look of these gardens evoked memories of their home counties and had become places where they can share and perform traditional practices involving plants and food (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2015). Many went as far as to describe the relationships they had formed at the gardens as “family-like” (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2015).  In addition to creating a sense of place for this population, urban farms can also improve access to culturally appropriate foods that are farmed following cultural traditions and practices.

An Example of Immigrant Place-Making: South Central Farm 

A Plot at South Central Farm.

We can look to the South Central Farm (SCF) as an example of how immigrants can create their own sense of place. South Central Farm was an urban farm in South Central, Los Angeles that operated from 1992-2006. Many of the farmers at SCF were immigrants largely from Latin America, many from Mexico. SCF’s features were based on many unique cultural practices found across Mexico. For example many of the types of plants grown at the farm were of Mesoamerican origin.  Some of these plants included maize (Zea may), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), squash (Cucurbita pepo), avocado (Persea americana), banana (Musa sapientum), and many others (Peña 2006). The planting of the individual plots mimicked those that many of the farmers experienced in Mexico and which they had called huerto familiar (hometown kitchen gardens) (Peña 2006).  In 2006, Devon G. Peña, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington, studied the South Central Farm and interviewed many farmers about their experience of the farm. One such interviewee, a Zapotec woman, described her garden plot at SCF as “a little space like home. I grow the same plants that I had back in my garden in Oaxaca. We can eat like we ate at home and this makes us feel like ourselves. It allows us to keep a part of who we are after coming to the United States” (Peña 2006).

Census profile: Los Angeles County (South Central)–LA City (South Central/Watts) PUMA, CA. (2019). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://censusreporter.org/profiles/79500US0603751-los-angeles-county-south-central-la-city-south-centralwatts-puma-ca/

Food Sovereignty. (2007). Retrieved November 12, 2020, from http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/what-is-food-sovereignty/

Hondagneu-Sotelo, P. (2015). At home in inner-city immigrant community gardens. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 32(1), 13-28. doi:10.1007/s10901-015-9491-0

Kanstroom, D. (2010). Deportation nation: Outsiders in American history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Najafi, M., & Shariff, M. (2011, August). The concept of place and sense of place in architectural studies. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/288118788_The_concept_of_place_and_sense_of_place_in_architectural_studies

Peña, Devon G. (2006, March 4). Farmers Feeding Families: Agroecology in South Central Los Angeles. National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

2 thoughts on “Home Away From Home: Immigrants Creating a “Sense of Place” in Urban Farms and Community Gardens

  1. Hello, I think you brought up a good point that food is a way to connect people; urban agriculture provides opportunities to improve access to healthy food options. Many individuals from other countries or individuals who immigrated to America have complications with accessing food; as many of these individuals reside in low-economic areas that may not even have be able to afford grocery stores such as Stater Bros. or Albertsons. Most of the time, there are only fast-foods and convenience stores with processed foods high in sugars and fats. This impairs individuals ability to provide healthy diets for themselves and their families which in turn increases diet related issues such as- heart trouble, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc. Due to improper diets, these health complications surge in the immigrant demographics. Along with their inability to access a suitable quality food source, many of the immigrants cannot afford health care to take care of these issues. However, having the ability to work with and connect with other individuals that immigrated to this country on a common goal, to grow cultural appropriate food to provide their families with healthier ethnic diets. Urban farming not only supplies food for a community but, provides a support group of like individuals as well as a safe space in their neighborhood; this network and safe space also contributes to positive mental health. Many individuals that immigrated to the country develop mental illness from the pressures of surviving and adapting to the new country; these individuals suffer depression, anxiety, and other disorders from disconnectedness, discomfort, and adversity.

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  2. Sophie, I liked your blog article of immigrants using urban farms and community gardens to grow crops from their cultures. You brought up several excellent points about immigrant families miss having traditions and cultural foods. For many families our cultural food helps us still carry on our cultural traditions. Urban communities are already suffering from a lack of health foods but what most people don’t realize that immigrant families also develop homesickness. I come from an immigrant family, both my parent and grandparents came from Mexico. I know how much they miss their home and how hard it is to find specific ingredients to create their cultural foods. Both my parents and grandparents own several farmlands in Guerrero Mexico. They used to grow several herbs, avocados, and maize on their land. Now that they live in California, their homes have very little space to grow some plants and crops. My grandmother really misses several traditional foods made from her village. Several grocery stores where we shop at don’t sell the herbs, spices, and crops from Mexico need to create her food. So me and my parents have to travel to Los Angeles to find these ingredients to be able to create our cultural foods. We are not the only families that have to travel long distances to find food. Every time I go to Los Angeles, I meet other people looking for other cultural food in indoors and outdoors markets. When we discovered local farms and community gardens, we found several crops and herbs that were from Latin America at low cost. These urban farms can help immigrant families bring back a “Sense of Place” like you said. They can cut the time of travel and cost of buying these foods. Urban farms can help heal immigrant families by bring back their cultural traditions and stop them from feeling homesick.

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