Campus News

UB alumna leads Buffalo Freedom Gardens

Gail V. Wells speaks to volunteers from the community, including UB Food Lab team members, who had gathered to distribute raised bed gardens to Buffalo residents through Buffalo Freedom Gardens. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published July 13, 2022

“If you listen to the people and use your education, you can make change happen. You can be a community asset. ”
Gail V. Wells, founder
Freedom Gardens

Summer is here, and with the arrival of the growing season, an initiative called Buffalo Freedom Gardens has given dozens of residents of Buffalo’s East Side neighborhoods a free raised bed garden.

On a Saturday in June, volunteers including UB Food Lab members joined Freedom Gardens founder Gail V. Wells to make the last of this year’s deliveries.

The team packed cedar wood planters, each expected to last at least a decade, into a U-Haul truck, along with bags of soil. Freedom Gardens recipients also get seeds and vegetable seedlings, garden gloves, a bright green watering can, and instructions on caring for the plants.

Each garden is a thing of joy — and an act of liberation, says Wells, a UB alumna who remains connected to the university community.

She points out that food has long been central to movements for freedom: “For Black people who are descendants of kidnapped and enslaved Africans, the way we could secure our safety and our families and build an economy for ourselves was first based on us being able to feed ourselves,” she says.

Since its founding in 2020, Freedom Gardens has installed 134 raised beds in communities of color in Buffalo, and Wells is raising funds to support the initiative.

The group’s mission — fighting racism, inspiring resilience and providing fresh vegetables in neighborhoods that lack grocery stores and access to healthy foods — is resonating, once again, in the wake of the racist mass shooting on May 14 at the Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue.

In the weeks since then, Freedom Gardens has been among community groups in Buffalo that have joined together to call for an end to acute and chronic violence against Black people, and to take action on food equity.

“This hateful act took 10 lives from our beloved community and shattered many more,” Wells wrote in a recent statement, noting that Tops was the only full-service supermarket serving the predominantly Black surrounding community. “We have been living under food apartheid before the shooting and now we need to again summon our strength and resilience to make sure our people are fed, nourished, and loved while we heal.”

Tomato plants, part of the Buffalo Freedom Gardens initiative. Photo: Douglas Levere

‘You can make change happen’

Food and nature have long been a vital part of Wells’ life since she was a child.

Her grandmother, who was born in Mississippi and moved north during the Great Migration, taught her how to cultivate new plants from seeds and cuttings. The family gardened in pots placed outside their fire escape in Harlem. It was also from her grandmother that Wells learned to cook and bake. Wells has memories of preparing food together and learning about the world that way.

“One of the foundations of culture is food,” Wells says. “So you know, Freedom Gardens is about us finding ourselves and going back to the foods we traditionally ate, and the preparation of those foods. It connects us to families and to each other. And food is a way you grieve: That’s why you have comfort food.”

Wells’ work on Buffalo Freedom Gardens combines the early education she received from her grandmother with the education she received later at UB, where she earned an undergraduate degree in public policy and administration and a master’s degree in urban planning.

And that’s the story she wants to tell: “If you listen to the people and use your education, you can make change happen,” she says. “You can be a community asset.”

Photos: Douglas Levere

Changing the food and farm system takes collective action

Caring, trusted relationships between people and organizations are a cornerstone of Buffalo Freedom Gardens’ work.

Partners that helped the initiative get off the ground in 2020 included the Seeding Resilience coalition in Buffalo; Food for the Spirit and the Buffalo Food Equity Network; Grassroots Gardens WNY; CopperTown Block Club; Access To A-Free-Ka; the Juneteenth Agricultural Pavilion Committee; the Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo; and Soul Fire Farms.

At UB, the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (Food Lab) led by Professor Samina Raja has supported Freedom Gardens from the effort’s inception. This year, Food Lab scholars and students not only helped with deliveries. They also assembled the project’s bug- and moisture-resistant cedar planters in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Fabrication Workshop.

Wells cites Raja and the Food Lab as essential in the story of Freedom Gardens, sharing recently on Twitter that “Buffalo Freedom Gardens could not exist without the assistance of the UB Food Lab!”

Separately, in an interview, Wells discussed her urban planning background and the influence that faculty she studied with, including Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., director of the UB Center for Urban Studies, have had on her life and on inspiring generations of students to pursue work in social justice.

“I would have never done half of what I’ve done the way I’ve done it without the perspective that urban planning brings to the development of community and place,” Wells said.

Now, Wells is contributing to the education of a new generation.

She was the Food Lab’s inaugural Community Advisor for Research that is Equitable (CARE) fellow, advising the team on community-centered research. This summer, one Food Lab student has an externship with Freedom Gardens. Wells, who served as director of student life at SUNY Buffalo State before retiring in 2014, is an “extraordinary mentor,” says Raja, a professor of urban and regional planning in the School of Architecture and Planning.

One solution among many in a national movement

Buffalo Freedom Gardens is part of a broader movement for food justice that began, locally and nationally, long before the May 14 attack.

“If viewed in isolation, Buffalo Freedom Gardens may be narrowly understood as a small backyard/front-yard gardening program for marginalized communities,” Raja says. “Such a narrow view overlooks the deep history — and present efforts — by Black women to use food and agriculture as a collective mechanism for sustenance, empowerment and liberation.

“For example, in the southern part of the country, Ms. Shirley Sherrod and others co-founded the New Communities Land Trust in Southwest Georgia, a collective farm and the largest landholding by Black farmers at the time, that grew out of the civil rights movement. Closer to us in New York State, Leah Penniman founded Soul Fire Farm in 2010 for Black and brown people to have agency over their food system. In 2014, Ms. Karen Washington founded Rise and Root Farm with an understanding that raising food ‘gives you power and dignity.’ Indeed, the Buffalo Freedom Gardens is our city’s manifestation of a national aspiration for collective agency and sovereignty over the food system.”

In 2019, Wells was selected along with Allison DeHonney of ​Urban Fruits and Veggies and Alexander Wright of the African Heritage Food Co-op for the HEAL Food Alliance’s School of Political Leadership, which supported teams of leaders who are reimagining how food and farm systems function.

The following year, in the first full winter of the pandemic, Freedom Gardens partnered with the African Heritage Food Co-op to provide six weeks of holiday food subscriptions to people in neighborhoods highly impacted by COVID-19. Deliveries included organic collard greens, lettuce, kale, peppers, onions, sweet potatoes, beans and rice, apples, eggs, spices, teas, copies of The Challenger Community News, and masks and gloves.

Since 2020, Freedom Gardens has also provided home gardeners a great variety of vegetables and fresh food “that you wouldn’t find necessarily at the big box stores,” Wells says. “That’s why we like to work with the urban growers here in Western New York. We try to emphasize culturally appropriate foods.”

The concept of Freedom Gardens as one solution among many, as one partner in a multitude, reflects its mission of reducing the dominance of large corporations in the food system and delivering more control over food production and distribution to people, families and communities.

It’s about liberation and independence, Wells says. In learning to grow food, she says, “You learn to take care of yourself.”