HARTFORD -- When Robert Andrews was homeless for more than two decades in Southington, he lived off corn, eggplant and fish gathered from nearby farms and rivers.
But when he moved to Hartford to find housing, he couldn't find fresh vegetables anymore.
"Learning how to survive in the city is a whole different animal," Andrews said.
Andrews and other community organizers from the Charter Oaks Cultural Center want to change that. They have placed 12 hand-painted pots full of vegetable plants around the city for anybody to pick. The pots are watered every day by people who were or are homeless, who receive Walmart gift certificates for their efforts. The pots are funded by donations from local community members, and all the plants and pots were donated as well.
"People have said to us 'What if people steal the vegetables?' And we're like 'They're supposed to, we want them to,'" said Donna Berman, the Charter Oak Cultural Center's executive director.
Berman said she thinks the BOTS (Beat of the Streets) Pots program in Hartford is the first of its kind in the United States, and it's spreading. A similar program will start this summer in Port Washington, NY, after Berman suggested it, and Berman hopes Detroit will pick it up as well.
"They have a food pantry and it got robbed about 10 times in something like two weeks, and the only thing that was taken was food," Berman said. "So we said to them, this is the perfect thing. The food is right out there, put it on the street."
Berman and Andrews said they hope to have two pots on every street in Hartford, but they have met some resistance from city officials, who say they don't want to be liable for somebody getting sick from eating the vegetables. So instead, they put the pots next to the sidewalks on the property of local churches.
"I think eventually it will just be embraced by everybody," Berman said. "For those of us who are not homeless or hungry, it reminds us that this is a caring city. There's a symbolic dimension to it to for all of us, but it's really practical too."
BOTS Pots co-coordinator Joan Artis, who said she was homeless three years ago, said the pots are very different from community gardens. There is no fee to take vegetables or care for the pot, and everybody is welcome.
"We have community gardens in Hartford, but try to get into one," Artis said. "You have to have connections. I tried to get into a community garden for three months, and then I was sent across town to a different garden, and I couldn't get there every day. Why can't I just go to the one down the road from me, where there are free plots?"
Andrews and Artis co-ordinate the workers and said they have never found a cigarette butt or trash in the pots.
"If you have no home or you have a home, you're free to pick these vegetables, we don't discriminate," Andrews said. "We don't care what country you're from, or religion or anything, all we care about is the fact that we are providing a vegetable that is fresh, wholesome."
To help the Charter Oaks Cultural Center put more pots around the city, donate at charteroakcenter.org by clicking on the "Donate through Network for Good" tab. It is $500 to sponsor a pot, but any donations are accepted.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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