Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking her followers on a social justice gardening journey to promote the Green New Deal

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.Cliff Owen/AP Images

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leveraging her social media celebrity to promote small-scale environmentalism and food justice through her attempt at rooftop gardening.
  • The Bronx, New York native and celebrity politician is using the project to promote her Green New Deal resolution - an ambitious plan to combat climate change and expand the social safety net.
  • "When we were deploying the Green New Deal, one of the first attacks was, 'Well, what does she know about farming?'" Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram story about the project.
  • Ocasio-Cortez is taking a social justice approach to urban gardening, and has faced pushback for arguing that community gardens should feature plants that are "culturally familiar to the community."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

On a Sunday in early April, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced via Twitter that she'd be adopting a rooftop community garden plot in Washington, DC.

"Any green-thumbs out with sage words of advice?" the New York progressive asked her 4 million-person following. Among the thousands of responses were puns from an Israeli rabbi and counsel from British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The 29-year-old freshman lawmaker framed her new gardening hobby as a way to practice "self-care" and "mindfulness," an escape from her demanding life as a member of Congress.

"I feel like plants are a great accountability partner because they literally die if you don't take time to tend to yourself and to them," she said in an April Instagram story.

Ocasio-Cortez has a habit of using her social media celebrity to mix politics with daily life in a way that targets a millennial and Gen Z audience. She's brought her legions of fans into her kitchen for live "Cook + Q&A" sessions and into her livingroom to drink wine and assemble IKEA furniture, all the while answering questions and opining on the issues of the day.

Perhaps playing off Instagram's gardening influencer community, Ocasio-Cortez is now mixing politics, food, and environmental activism.

"Food that comes out of dirt - it's magic," she says of her collard greens and spinach.

The project was also designed to focus attention on Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal resolution - a sweeping, ambitious plan to combat climate change, stimulate the economy, and expand the social safety net.

Ocasio-Cortez received widespread criticism for a set of FAQ's her office put out - and quickly retracted - suggesting the resolution called for eventually eliminating cows and airplane travel, and providing a living wage to those "unwilling to work." The congresswoman said she's faced strong pushback from advocates for agriculture.

"When we were deploying the Green New Deal, one of the first attacks was, 'Well, what does she know about farming?'" Ocasio-Cortez said in an Instagram story describing why she took on the rooftop gardening project.

Read more: 'Our kids' lives are at stake': Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slams Joe Biden over his 'middle-ground' approach to fighting climate change

Viraj Puri, the CEO of Gotham Greens, a New York urban farming startup, said that urban gardening is a good way to educate communities about the ties between environmental issues and agriculture.

"Community gardening is - no pun intended - a low-hanging fruit. It's an easy entry point to build up awareness around agricultural issues and around health and wellness," Viraj Puri told INSIDER. "[It] really straddles so many different themes - from climate change, to health and obesity, to urban greening, to quality of life."

Ocasio-Cortez's approach to urban gardening differs from that of other Democrats, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, who promoted her White House vegetable garden as a way to combat childhood obesity, rather than as an environmental initiative.

The congresswoman has also faced pushback for taking a social justice-oriented approach to the project. During a recent trip to the Glover Street Community Garden in the Bronx - documented on Instagram, of course - she made the case for growing plants that are "culturally familiar to the community." She argued that many community development projects fail because they involve outsiders dictating how things go, rather than allowing the community to lead.

"That is such a core component of the Green New Deal - is having all of these projects make sense in a cultural context," she said. "When someone says that it's too hard to do a green space that grows yuca instead of, I don't know, cauliflower what you're doing is you're taking a colonial approach to environmentalism."

She went on, "If I went to a predominantly white community and said, 'Okay, you guys are going to be growing plantains and yuca and all these things that you don't know how to cook, and that your palate isn't accustomed to,' it's going to be like cute for a little bit. But it's not easy."

Read more: Fox News is flooding its airwaves with talk about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal and now conservative support for the plan has plummeted

These concepts are well-established among food justice advocates.

"A lot of people of color are actually generationally closer to working the land than the a lot of - for lack of a better term - white hipsters, and yet it's middle-class, educated, white folks who think they need to come into communities of color to educate them," Luz Calvo, a professor of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay who wrote a book entitled "Decolonize Your Diet," told INSIDER.

But critics on the right were quick to ridicule the argument, saying that Ocasio-Cortez had maligned cauliflower as racist.

"Also, cauliflower's delicious and yuca tastes bad," right-wing provocateur Ben Shapiro said in a YouTube video. "Maybe that's just my different cultural sensitivity speaking to me here - but also I don't care if you grow yuca."

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