Small seeds of change can lead to better health and happiness if communities are willing to put in the work.
From breaking ground to regular weeding, community gardens require a serious commitment, but the payoffs can result in healthier neighborhoods.
Carrie Miller, a volunteer with Acts of Real Kindness, started a community garden at Carnell Elementary in 2019.
“About 98% of the kids in that school alone are on free and reduced lunches. We know that the food insecurity in that area is very, very high,” she said. “I wanted to see something that would give them buy-in to the food that they’re going to eventually take home.”
Students and volunteers planted and harvested produce, including turnips and sweet potatoes.
Children are five times more likely to eat vegetables they have grown themselves, according to a 2015 study from Cornell University and the University of Ohio.
Riverview Hope Campus, which provides services for individuals experiencing homelessness, also has its own facility garden. Betsey Joannides, executive chef, uses the harvest in 10,000 meals a month for shelter residents.
“I am passionate about farm to table … [Produce] goes into everything. If I have five squash, I’ll chop it up and put it in my spaghetti. That’s a talent I have — I can take anything and put it into everything,” Joannides said.
From research to harvest
While research on community gardens points to healthy outcomes, questions still remain on how to implement these findings.
Blake Metcalf, clinical nutrition manager for Baptist Health in Fort Smith and Van Buren, described himself as a “big fan” of community gardens. However, he said that the broadness of the term makes it difficult to compare and establish outcomes for successful gardens.
“I would suspect with proper research, we would find a lot of great things about community gardens, but right now the research is very limited,” Metcalf said. “With everything in nutrition, you also run into the research term called ‘external validity. So, yes, the 16 people in the study had great outcomes, but what about everybody else?”
For Metcalf, a properly implemented community garden comes down to one thing – accessibility.
“In Fort Smith, for example, there are lots of parts of town where you can’t safely walk from one end to the other. If you do, in some cases you may be walking several miles to get to a place,” Metcalf said. “You’re starting a community garden, you’re trying to address food insecurity or even just education, but if you can’t get people there, it ceases to have the value you hoped for.”
The other side of accessibility is helping families with low incomes be able to properly store fresh produce and other healthy foods.
Metcalf shared the story of one patient with diabetes who was facing issues with her blood sugar.
“Everyone who had met with her up to that point had failed to ask her if she had a working refrigerator. That’s just not something a lot of people think about whenever they tell people about nutrition … She was forced to eat a diet that had to work around that fact that she didn’t have a working refrigerator.”
Local impacts on health
When community garden programs take root and address issues with accessibility, they can combat the hunger-obesity paradox.
Metcalf described the paradox occurring when individuals with low incomes face higher rates of obesity due to consuming more high-caloric foods.
“You’re getting frozen pizzas and things like that, just trying to stretch your dollar as far as possible,” Metcalf said.
Through community gardens making fresh produce more available and affordable, people with lower incomes can make these foods a regular part of their diets.
The Sebastian County Office of the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service does not keep statistics on community gardens in the county, but both Joannides and Miller attest to the positive impact of locally grown foods.
“When you’re growing your own food, you know what’s in your soil … When you go to the grocery store, you don’t know what pesticides have been sprayed on that,” Joannides said.
She also encourages residents to eat nutritious meals by including vegetables in unique ways, such as putting beets in spaghetti sauce or putting brussels sprouts in stew.
“The difference in everything is these guys can tell when I cook something with fresh (produce) because it tastes so much better,” Joannides said.
Miller said the produce provides healthy options for families who rely on more affordable, pre-packaged foods.
“It certainly gives them a little bit of a boost with all of those fruits and veggies that they would not normally get,” Miller said. “They may only be getting it once a week, but at least they are getting it once.”
Education on nutritious choices
Another barrier faced by community gardens is helping recipients use the produce that they harvest.
“Between a community garden and general cooking classes, I think that is one of the major keys to overcoming a lot of things that we’ve got in Fort Smith and all over the country,” Metcalf said. “People are far too reliant on other people to prepare their food.”
Instead of depending on fast food, families can learn how to grow and cook healthy meals together.
Along with the garden at Carnall Elementary, Acts of Real Kindness has also partnered with the Fort Smith Farmer’s Market to donate their leftover produce. Volunteers place foods in 24/7 Blessing Boxes around the city.
With the variety of foods that Acts of Real Kindness receives from the farmer’s markets, volunteers include recipes with unfamiliar or uncommon produce.
“We had some cards made up and we put them in the Blessing Boxes with it, just so they knew,” Miller said.
In the classes she teaches at the Hope Campus, Joannides cover basic nutrition and tips for cooking with produce and other healthy foods.
“I go over if you can’t get fresh produce then go for frozen produce because that packs more nutrition than the canned produce, and things like that,” she said.
Joannides’ biggest piece of advice is encouraging those receiving SNAP benefits to grow their own garden.
“Not a lot of people know that you can use your EBT cards … to buy what you need to build a garden,” she said. “You can get free compost from the city and then you go to the co-op, and they’ve get a lot of stuff that they allow you to buy on your EBT card … your starter plants … all your seeds, anything like that.”
Joannides went on to describe how setting up a garden can be relatively simple, either in a large container or a hole in a person’s yard.
“You don’t need raised boxes, you just need maybe some chicken wire to put around it to keep the birds out or … rabbits that like to eat your fresh food as much as we do,” she said.
Whether it is a garden in a city lot or in a family’s backyard, the space can help bring communities back to the basics of where nutritious foods come from and how to pursue healthy lifestyles together.
“It can create a sense of pride in taking charge of your own health. You begin to see it as something that isn’t so far out of touch,” Metcalf said.
Catherine Nolte is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She can be reached at [email protected]