Brass City Harvest brings fresh food to an urban 'desert'

In the middle of Waterbury, Conn., a faded industrial city, Brass City Harvest will open a year-round farmers market, offering fresh produce and other goods from eight Connecticut farms.

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    Brass City Harvest in Waterbury, Conn., operates an urban garden. And in November it will add a year-round farmers market supplied by nearby Connecticut farms, says Susan Pronovost, executive director of Brass City Harvest.
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In a bricked up, boarded up part of Waterbury, Conn., where the main crop seem to be shattered glass, Brass City Harvest stands as an oasis.

Pots of colorful flowers line the steps to Brass City’s office, which is actually no more than an iPad on a conference table. Just behind the table two large pools await the arrival of trout. Outside stand raised-bed gardens. Some are filled with Asian eggplants, others with tomatoes hanging like Christmas ornaments from the vine.

Nonprofit Brass City Harvest operates the "Connecticut Grown" farmers markets in Waterbury, providing what its executive director, Susan Pronovost, calls “real food” for hungry people. And next month Brass City Harvest will open a year-round farmers market, selling produce and goods produced by about eight Connecticut farms.

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Chase Manhattan Bank once occupied the 3,000-square-foot space where the farmers market will stand. Grants from the University of Connecticut and  Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group dedicated to make fresh food more available, helped make the market possible.

The new market will be a food hub, Ms. Pronovost says. According to the US Department of Agriculture, one-third of Waterbury is a "food desert." That means that either at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher and live more than one mile from a supermarket or grocery store.

“People are hungry. They knock at our door and ask if we have something,” Pronovost says. “The problem of food security and poverty in Waterbury is deeper than we can imagine. I think every year it’s getting worse.”

Pronovost was born and raised in Waterbury, known as the Brass City because it was once famous for its brass works. She worked for the city for years. She has seen too many hungry people and too many abandoned lots and buildings, particularly in the past several years. The state of the city gnawed at her.

Thinking there must be a better way to feed people Pronovost started Brass City Harvest in 2007. Today it’s a seven-day-a-week operation that sponsors two farmers markets. Brass City’s staff includes a nutritionist, nurse, and social worker. It also offers vocational training to homeless men.

Still, Pronovost thought more could be done to keep the supply of fresh food and produce flowing year round.

After visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St. John, New Brunswick, this summer, she says the year-round indoor markets in those cities there inspired her.

“If people to the north can do it, we certainly can,” she says.

Brass City’s year-round market will offer fresh produce, poultry, beef, goat soap, flowers, and candles. It will also provide cooking and nutrition classes. It’s important that those who shop at the market know how to cook and prepare the food they buy, Pronovost says. One of the Connecticut farmers has a commercial kitchen and is considering making pre-cooked meals people could heat and serve.

Pronovost knows she will have to do a lot of outreach to make the market a success. Many of her clients rely on food-assistance programs.

“We hear you can’t buy real food with food stamps, that real food is macaroni and cheese or processed food," Pronovost says, citing two bits of misinformation.
 "There is a tremendous amount of education needed for what real food is,” she says.

That wholesome food is grown on this block is a testament to Pronovost’s grit. Across the street from Brass City Harvest stands the fire-scarred Nova Dye and Print building. Last spring flames engulfed the building, and the fire burned underground for a week. The inferno nearly destroyed Brass City's hoop house, its garden warmed and protected by a plastic covering.

Brass City itself sits on top of a brownfield. The soil is filled with lead and other hazardous materials, Pronovost says. The City of Waterbury inherited the lot and had three choices – leave it alone, dig 30 feet down and replace the soil, or pour a concrete cap over the toxic soil. The city chose to cover the area with concrete. Brass Harvest has built its raised bed gardens over the concrete.

Waterbury is not going to return to its past as a thriving industrial city, Pronovost says, adding that she has no patience for those who say they are just waiting for businesses to return.

“You reinvent yourself," she says. "You have to do what will be sustainable in the future.”

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