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This is the first installment of our series, First Person, featuring Black leaders in environmental organizations and advocacy in our region.

Denele Hughson, Grow Pittsburgh’s new executive director, says the urban agricultural nonprofit is all about making sure that people have access to fresh produce and the opportunity to try new things.

“I love food,” Hughson says. “Food is the one connecting thing that everyone has to do. That’s really why our work is key, because food is essential.” 

LISTEN to Denele’s Audio Postcard: 

The Pittsburgh native has worked at Grow Pittsburgh for over five years in other roles, including Director of Farm Education. Hughson says after completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh, she wasn’t sure about a career path. But during a stint in AmeriCorps at Peabody High School, she discovered a passion for after-school education and learning that takes place outside of the classroom. It led to a Master of Science, Public Policy & Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University, and an internship with the Pittsburgh Board of Education. Hughson says her mother, a 30-year veteran public school teacher, inspires her to do this work.

“I’ve worked with kindergartners, all the way up to twenty-six year olds, but learning never stops,” Hughson says. 

Though she didn’t get into urban agriculture through her formal education, Hughson grew up gardening with her dad and sisters in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood.

“My dad’s from Virginia. He knew how to grow food. So we always grew food. It’s what we do,” Hughson says. “But some people don’t have that direct connection.”

Grow Pittsburgh fills that gap. It helps schools and communities start gardens, maintains a garden tool lending library, and trains young people to work with the soil and build skills they can use in any future job or career. It also grows food for community farm stands at two production sites in Allegheny County: Braddock Farms, and the Frick Greenhouse and Shiloh Farms, located in Point Breeze. 

“On our farm sites we grow all of your staple crops, anything that the community wants to eat,” Hughson says. “So we’re not really growing fancy crops for restaurants. We’re growing your staples–your greens, your carrots, your beets–things that you can have in your dinner every week.”

Hughson says a new site in Wilkinsburg, Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery, which was donated by one of Grow Pittsburgh’s co-founders, will help the organization fulfill its mission. She wants to make sure that Grow Pittsburgh is seen as the key resource of urban agriculture in the region, and by that she means everything from growing a tomato plant in a pot on your porch to growing hundreds of pounds of food to feed a community.

A big issue in urban agriculture right now is access to land, Hughson says. That includes ensuring that community members farming on a corner lot, for example, don’t lose it because of development or the property changing ownership.

Grow Pittsburgh would like to see anyone who wants access to land to have land, and that includes people who have been historically left out of it,” Hughson says. “We work a lot in Black and Brown communities where I think growing food would be of great benefit to their community, for the economy and for ownership of their land space.”

Hughson says the challenges of the last year, and her transition into this new role, have meant a busy, but hopeful time. Grow Pittsburgh continued operating during the pandemic. It built a roadside stand at Braddock Farms, and shifted to online sales of their annual seedling offerings grown at the Frick greenhouse. They’re planning an extended sales window for the 2021 season, hoping to get as many vegetable and flower seedlings into the hands of the people who want to grow them. 

“Covid did test our food economy,” Hughson says, “And when I say that, I mean how food gets to the grocery store, how food gets to your table.” 

Many people have lost income due to unemployment or underemployment during the pandemic. Some grocery stores couldn’t maintain supplies to keep up with demand. Hughson says the role that local food plays is very important. 

She has some advice for people who want to give growing their own food a try: Don’t get disappointed if it doesn’t work out the first time.

“Seeds and plants want to grow. That is their purpose,” Hughson says. “You just have to get the right conditions for it, and everyone can learn it.”

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