By Amy Miller
For years, decades, the people living in the East End of Bridgeport lobbied to get a supermarket. One of many communities across the country that live in food deserts, far from affordable fresh foods, East End residents finally got sick of waiting, and sick of eating canned vegetables or taking a $30 taxi to and from a supermarket.
“They realized we are not going to get a market unless we do this ourselves,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator of EPA’s New England office, who recently paid a visit to Connecticut’s largest city.
The folks in East End jumped in their cars, drove to Boston and, according to Spalding, came back inspired to create a pop-up grocery store. The group saw how people in the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods had come together to build grocery stores and bakeries, and they suddenly felt empowered to pave their own path to fresh and healthy food.
During his visit, Curt saw the new 1,000-square-foot market at 1831 Stratford St. as it gets ready to open – most likely before the year is out – in an empty office owned by the Bridgeport Neighborhood Trust. And he was impressed by how residents had stepped out in front of local government and big developers to get what they needed.
“When you come together and think about a problem and want to build resilience, you can find assets you never knew you had,” he said.
The East End market was just one stop for Curt among the Bridgeport projects supported by the EPA that will nurture the city’s environment, economy and social fabric – basically what makes a community a community.
Bridgeport was chosen for EPA’s Making a Visible Difference Program, a program that focuses support on environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed areas. Nearly a fifth of the people living here in 2010 were below the poverty line. Blood lead levels and asthma rates are among the highest in the states.
What Curt found was a community in the throes of building itself up.
The last stop of Curt’s day allowed him to see another community effort – this one to protect the city’s water resources. Groundworks Bridgeport, a local non-profit, runs a one-week water boot camp that teaches high school students the importance of drinking water and tells them about related careers.
Gevon Solomon, EPA New England’s environmental justice coordinator, who accompanied Curt on the trip, noted that more than half of today’s water operators are expected to retire soon, creating a demand in the field. At the graduation for the latest group, Curt listened as students each gave a presentation on a facet of water operations. A 2010 boot camp graduate told students that he was passionate about the field by the end of the training and was able to get a job as a water professional through connections he made.
Although most of the students won’t enter the field, the boot camp still serves the community, Curt noted. “They connected with and understood what sustains their community, something kids don’t get to understand all that often,” he said.
And overall, the day was a chance to see people and business, organizations and federal agencies working together for positive goals.
“It’s the community coming together,” Curt said, “driving their goals and finding good partners.”
Amy Miller edits the EPA New England blog and is in the office of public affairs at EPA New England.