Raised in Chicago by an ESL teacher with a penchant for gardening and a father who enjoyed cooking his native Colombian cuisine, Carly Vendegna, ’10, loves good food. As a geography major and economics minor at Richmond, she is interested in the geography of economic development. Now she’s bringing the two interests together by developing gardens in areas with a need for fresh food.

Vendegna first got involved in civic issues during her sophomore year while looking for a way to get to know the city of Richmond. Through Build It, the University’s largest civic engagement initiative, she started volunteering with Boaz and Ruth, a nonprofit dedicated to ex-offenders’ successful re-entry into society, located in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Initially, she folded clothes and answered phones, helping with any task that needed attention. But as a long-term volunteer, she built relationships with community members and started to identify ways to expand her involvement.

One opportunity came when Vendegna learned about food deserts – areas with little or no access to foods needed for a healthy diet – in a sociology course called “Feast and Famine: Inequalities in the Global Food System.” Comparing prices and availability of basic food items such as pasta and fresh fruit in Highland Park stores to those in Richmond’s West End, she determined that the neighborhood was in fact a food desert.

Eager to address this problem, but overwhelmed by the prospect of organizing something new in the community, Vedegna looked for ways to expand her understanding of the relationship between human rights and food accessibility.

Planting Seeds

Vendegna studied abroad in India the next semester, where she learned how the creation of seed banks in Indian villages promoted sustainable agriculture by giving villagers control over the quality and quantity of seeds.

“Because of the success of the seed banks, villagers could buy better livestock, build better buildings, and have better weddings,” she said.

Through a Weinstein grant, she extended her stay in India to live and work on an organic farm where she learned about organic agriculture firsthand. “I harvested wheat, milked cows, and worked with the chef,” she said.

Seeing the success of grassroots movements in South Asia led Vendegna to an important decision — one that brought her back to the U.S. “I realized I can do more at home, where I understand the problems better,” she said.

From Farm to Table

With a Burhans Civic Fellowship, she interned at Growing Power, a nonprofit that develops community-food systems in her native Chicago. She immersed herself in all aspects of the alternative food movement, from composting, planting, weeding and harvesting, to the distribution and sale of food in urban farmers markets.

That summer, she also learned about the racial and socioeconomic undercurrents associated with the organic food movement in the United States.

“Because of slavery’s association with agriculture, some African-Americans may initially be reluctant to embrace community gardening, especially when a lot of the alternative-food movement leaders are white,” Vendegna explained. “Price can also be a deterrent. Low-income families can’t afford to buy organic tomatoes at $4.25 a pound.”

Local Impact

Vendegna sees an opportunity to address those issues here in Richmond, where the emphasis on locally-grown and community-supported agriculture is gaining momentum.

As co-president of Green UR and a program policy associate at the CCE, she is working with other students to create a compost pile and community garden in the center of the campus apartments.

“After my internship experiences,” Vendegna said, “I think I really could start a garden on a piece of asphalt.”

Working with Backyard Farmer and a local church, Vendegna is also helping to develop a compost unit and kitchen garden on a plot of land owned by Boaz and Ruth.

The garden will educate Highland Park residents on the value of good nutrition while simultaneously supplying fresh produce to a restaurant operated by Boaz and Ruth. Rather than giving instructions on which seeds to plant, Vendegna starts by asking community members: “What do you want to grow?”