Memory plays a big role in the Brass City. It’s there in the name — no brass is produced in Waterbury anymore, but the memory of brass is everywhere. Susan Pronovost recalls a time growing up in Waterbury when every Italian family in her neighborhood would have a small garden. Today her organization, Brass City Harvest, builds off the memory of an older Waterbury.
During World War II, while the factories cranked out munitions to send to the theaters of war, there were something like 2,000 “victory gardens” across the Brass City to supplement family food rations and allow more money to be spent on food for the war effort. “Our food is fighting,” reads one propaganda poster of the time. Brass City Harvest grows food for a different fight. Today large areas of Waterbury are without not only neighborhood gardens, but adequate grocery stores, and residents find themselves restricted to the high-sugar, high-sodium food available in corner stores.
In service of this memory and a love of the fresh food she grew up with in Waterbury, Pronovost has been running Brass City Harvest — a collection of greenhouses, plots of land, and ambitions — for the last 11 years. “My family, a long time ago, worked in industry like everybody in town. But when you grow up in an Italian neighborhood in the Town Plot section of Waterbury, everybody had a garden. Everybody grew,” she says.
Brass City Harvest started with $2,000 and 12 garden beds. “I didn’t envision a paycheck beyond the first six months,” Pronovost says, laughing. Today Brass City has grown to 400 beds throughout the North End of Waterbury, encompassing some three acres of land.
The vast majority of the food grown by Brass City Harvest goes to the soup kitchen of the Greater Waterbury Interfaith Ministry, which feeds as many as 300 people a day, according to Tim Epperson, the coordinator of the food pantry. In addition to making meals to serve at the kitchen, food pantry users can bring fresh produce home with them to cook with, Epperson says.
In addition to the soup kitchen and food pantry, Pronovost delivers fresh produce to senior centers around Waterbury, as well as maintains a presence at various farmers markets around the city. Every Friday year round, you can find Brass City Harvest at Waterbury Hospital, and on the Green during the warmer months. Pronovost “strategically” will deploy their trucks for mobile markets to parks near low-income and food-insecure communities. “We wish we had 20 of her going around,” Epperson says of Pronovost.
One of the difficulties in urban farming, especially in central Waterbury, is that many of the areas in which one might grow are brownfields, contaminated with lead and PCBs. Before she could set up her hydroponics and greenhouse operation, Pronovost says she had to clean up the lot located on Mill Street. Across the street from the greenhouse is a vacant lot, where an abandoned factory stood until last year.
Down the block from the greenhouse is the site of some of Pronovost’s biggest ambitions: a food hub campus. While the site has to go through a remediation process itself, there are plans for a three-building facility, where commercial farmers can wash large quantities of produce under new government standards, standards that are difficult for small farmers without industrial capital to meet.
“We’re providing the outreach education in plain farmer language, and we’re allowing them the opportunity to wash the produce through us in government-approved standards, and they’ll either take it back with them or we’ll wholesale it for them,” she says. She also envisions a commercial kitchen, where farmers can make “value-added” products such as sauces and jams, as well as more greenhouses and a family nutrition center offering cooking classes.
In a neighborhood where most of the food options are processed, and full of sodium and fat, fresh produce is an oasis.