We spoke with Anh Vu Sawyer, the Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Coalition of Massachusetts (SEAC) and longtime friend of the REC. The Southeast Asian Coalition’s Urban Gardens Project began when Anh saw an empty lot collecting garbage and unsafe items in downtown Worcester near the SEAC office. She had always thought that the quintessential American green lawn was overrated, and that killing weeds with chemicals that harm our environment is bad for the city. Anh wondered, could the city turn the lot into a garden? She wanted the elders involved with SEAC to be healthy and active, and with these urban gardens, Elders could garden and continue the tradition of eating the fresh herbs and veggies native to their homelands.
The first SEAC urban garden was by the library. Anh called the REC because she wanted the lot they had found converted to a garden. We did soil test, provided top soil, built a fence; and the first SEAC garden was formed. The next year, the SEAC Urban Gardens Project expanded to the YWCA, and in 2019 expanded to the Adult Learning Center and the Worcester Art Museum. SEAC has found that their Urban Gardens Project does more than just promote healthy eating, it has also been reported to have completely elevated mental health issues experienced by SEAC elders. Elders often experience homesickness and miss both the food and interaction between older and younger people typical in their homelands. With the Urban Gardens Project, youth volunteers help the elders with weeding, watering, building fences, etc., resulting in a plethora of benefits, mental illness prevention being the biggest according to Anh.
The Urban Gardens Project has also helped to spread awareness about vegetables native to Southeast Asia. When the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) collaborated with the Southeast Asian Coalition to create a garden, it brought a diversity of people to the WAM, promoting diversity downtown. The greens grown at SEAC's gardens go to elders and to low-income people who come into the SEAC office for services (SEAC serves 10,000 clients per year), along with selling them to grocery stores and at REC farmers markets.
Additionally, elders cook for the youth with the produce they grow in the gardens, enriching the relationship between them. Youth also find themselves appreciating their cultural heritage more because of their love of the food, as well as through their civic and volunteer work. The friendship between the REC and the Southeast Asian Collation has brought about many projects, and Anh says hopes to create more green space as well as help more diverse groups of people to get good food to eat.