Habitat for Humanity ... and Vegetables

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — “This is like a mansion,” said Adriana Vinas, absolutely beaming as she walks around her new home. While the home is pretty small by many standards, it should seem like a mansion to a family that has spent the past few years living in a local housing development.

Vinaas moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic 17 years ago, when the oldest of her three children was just 5. At the time, and until recently, owning a home here seemed like a dream, but all of that changed through the work of Habitat for Humanity.

While some think of Habitat for Humanity as an organization that builds huts in developing countries, it does have a strong presence in the United States, and no, it doesn't build huts. What the organization does is build new homes that are extremely energy efficient. These homes are then sold to families that otherwise couldn’t afford to buy such a dwelling. Currently, Habitat for Humanity has six ongoing projects in Rhode Island alone.

“Big deal,” you might say. “Habitat for Humanity is just doing what they do, building houses.” The difference with the latest Habitat projects in Rhode Island is that the last two new homes built have included a built-in 4-by-8 container garden.

The idea was borne of the mind of Kevin Moore, project coordinator for the Rhode Island chapter. While Moore was attaining his degree in public community services from Providence College, he became imbued with a love and passion for growing food, which he learned while an intern at Southside Community Land Trust’s City Farm. When Moore and Habitat Rhode Island's Director Herman deKoe pitched the idea of having a ready-to-sow container garden in her new backyard to Vinas, deKoe said, “I didn’t even get a chance to finish my sentence before she said 'Yes,Yes,Yes!'”

So now, in addition to taking control of her family’s housing future she — and her mother Aura Noboa — will be commanding their family's food security by raising vegetables and herbs. Leo Pollock, Southside's director of programs, was on hand Thursday to provide Vinas with some guidance on how to begin her garden. While this year’s growing season may be coming to a close, Pollock said, “Fast-growing plants like greens, spinach, and cilantro can be planted now and harvested before the first frost. You can also plant garlic now and it will be ready to eat next year.”

A 4-foot-by-8-foot bed may not seem like a lot of room to grow, but Pollock assures that with proper management the bed could produce nearly a quarter of the family’s annual food needs, which will save the family a substantial amount of money. As far as the cost to build the garden, a couple hundred dollars on a $50,000 or $60,000 project is a drop in the bucket.

Vinas already exudes an air of responsibility when she speaks about her new home. “When it’s your property, you take better care of it,” she said. "It makes you be a good neighbor.” Although she speaks excellent English, an endearing tense shift slipped through when she said, “Nobody wants the house next door to look like a haunting house.” Indeed.

Favorable weather and luck should help the new home and garden prosper, along with hope that Habitat for Humanity continues to add backyard gardens — and hence, food security —  to that cornerstone of the American Dream: home ownership.