Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest is divided into nine chapters. The “Future” chapter includes: Susanne Wasson, Roy Ballard, Thom England, Aster Bekele. Get a taste for this chapter by reading the story below.
Felege Hiywot Center
You find Aster Bekele’s Felege Hiywot Center by turning down a pot-holed side street on the near north side of inner-city Indianapolis. This is a working-class neighborhood that’s seen better days. An old school sits abandoned; there are vacant lots where houses once stood. But, thanks to Bekele and her cadre of young workers and volunteers, this is also the site of a thriving urban produce garden. Bekele came to the United States from her native Ethiopia in 1973. She attended IUPUI and eventually was hired by Eli Lilly and Company to do chemical research. Bekele worked at Lilly for twenty-seven years before retiring in 2007. In the meantime, she dedicated herself to trying to improve the lives of children growing up in some of the city’s toughest, crime-ridden neighborhoods.
The Felege Hiywot Center was started in Spring 2006. “When that garden started, those kids were excited,” Bekele remembers. “They were saying, ‘We’re the ones who are poor.’ But when they had the garden, it was a different story. They wanted to give. They wanted to help.”
The garden is a lasting thing
The children had no idea where food is coming from. They thought food comes from a grocery store. At first, they wouldn’t touch the vegetables we grew. So we added them to things like pizza sauce and they started thinking, “This is good!” Initially, we just had to do it that way. But they got used to it. Now, believe it or not, we don’t spray, we don’t do anything, and they will actually go out, pick, and eat. It’s a huge change!
We have a Lilly biochemist who came here to volunteer in 2008. He really hurts for kids who have a hard time getting food because, when he was a child, he and his parents had to go to a food pantry. He was always worried that by the time he’d get to the front of the line the food would be gone. So his thing was that the best way to help kids was teach them how to grow food. That is how they will know they’re secure. They can do something. They can really take care of themselves. It’s showing these children that they can do so much wherever they are, even in an apartment, they can grow food—and a variety of food.
We had to start with food they were familiar with, lots of greens, and slowly develop that to include other vegetables. Then it became like, no matter what, I will take one bite, whatever it is. Now whatever we have, they will taste. That’s progress.
The garden represents a kind of healing. We have Quentin here. He’s eighteen. When he first came here, the lady from the center that brought him said, “He’s not going to be doing much; he doesn’t speak. Can he just sit?” We thought, sure.
So he’s sitting because we were already told that he doesn’t do much, doesn’t listen, doesn’t talk. But we’re doing gardening with the kids and, whenever we go outside, he comes along. All of a sudden we turn around and he’s planting something. He heard us! He’s listening. And we began to wonder what else he could do.
One day we were going to plant some beautiful flowers. The kids were excited and acting up. Quentin had a flower in his hand; I think he was really anxious to plant it. He said: “BE QUIET!” Everybody turned around, startled. We started thinking: “Wait a minute. Start working with this kid.” We gave him plants. He planted them. After two years we gave him a stipend. He goes through the garden, and he will weed and identify things. He caught on to a lot more. He started speaking. He reads. He totally came out of his shell. When you ask him what he likes about the garden, he says, “It’s quiet.”
All the kids say this is nice. They start thinking. It’s life: It doesn’t matter how many times they put a seed in; they see it come up. Every time they see a new one coming up, they jump, they rejoice. They want to measure it. The excitement is amazing.
When we say, “Here’s your seed, go ahead and plant it,” we start seeing this ownership. “Ooh, this is mine. I want to make sure I water it. I want to make sure that I give it compost.” So we started having rows, dividing them, and saying, “This is yours,” whether there is just one person or five working together. It’s the most healing thing. This is where they forget everything. This is where they actually can just work.
The harvest goes to all the children’s families. They take some home every time they come here to work. A lot of neighborhood families just walk up. At the same time, we have a lot of customers, like at Lilly, people who are volunteering, pick some, and take it there for sale. We have been generating enough income to take care of seeds and things like that.
You know what? There used to be a time when I felt like, “Oh. My. God. This is it. There is no future generation.” It was sad. It was just totally gone. But now I see the way these little ones are interested. They want to plant more. They want to stay here. They want to volunteer. And the future is much better because they know what to do. They can learn to take care of themselves, of their neighborhood. This is sustainable.