By Swati Ramanathan
As an international student, I am sometimes shocked that processed food in this country is cheaper and more readily available than raw, unprocessed food. American consumers, and in recent years consumers all over the developing world, value the convenience of processed food. However, the rise in juvenile diabetes and other lifestyle diseases has led many doctors to conclude that such convenience comes at a high price. Doctors now recommend consuming fresh produce and limiting the intake of processed foods.
I first heard of Community Food Initiatives (CFI) and the Westside Community Gardens last summer. Bordered by cheerful giant sunflowers, this garden lies conveniently along the Athens bike path. Before I knew it, I’d signed myself up for a plot.
I had never felt a sense of community like that before — certainly not in my big city hometown in India. There’s something about pottering about in the soil that connects you to the local land, and potter away I did.
The first step in growing my own food was turning over the soil, and Liz Shaw, who manages the gardens, reflects with amusement that I did this in dainty heels. In my defense, I wasn’t planning to turn over the soil that very day! My somewhat messy little garden was my pride. The tomatoes were lovely, sweet and organic. I had squash, cucumbers, mint and peppers. I was excited and spread the word in my graduate department. My garden-less graduate student friends eagerly signed up, and to this day, many continue maintaining their gardens. A friend now grows exotic medicinal herbs that are hard to procure outside of China.
The benefits are obvious: nutritious, local, organic vegetables, and you get to keep 90 percent of what you grow. The remaining 10 percent is donated either to CFI, or to a family or organization of your choice.
I was most impressed, however, with CFI’s other garden, the very aptly named Hope Garden. Hope Garden, situated off East State Street, is part of Hope Drive Apartments, a community for lower-income families. This 3-year-old program is intended to help children between ages 5 to 18 learn about sustainability, nutrition and the importance of growing locally. Other groups can easily replicate the gardening model adopted by Hope Garden. It also ensures that its own band of about thirty young gardeners is able to take on the bulk of the gardening under adult supervision.
The young gardeners prepare the soil with compost and mulch, and handle everything from planting, weeding, trellising and harvesting. They are even involved in the design process and decorate their gardens with recycled or donated art supplies. Not only is it a highly creative endeavor it also doubles as a hands-on learning experience for language, arts, science and multicultural studies. At every stage, CFI emphasizes the use of basic materials with very impressive results.
The slightly older kids, ages 11 to 16, are encouraged to participate in the Young Entrepreneurs at Hope (YEAH) program. There are currently seven participants who grow and make products such as jelly that are then sold at the Athens Farmers Market. These young entrepreneurs are paid based on the hours they put into the garden or kitchen. Besides the valuable life-lessons they learn from earning and managing an extra allowance, this has also made them good marketers.
All the evidence both locally and nationally seems to suggest that this program is achieving its goal of changing mindsets and educating communities. The documented benefits of gardening include a positive attitude toward learning, stronger interpersonal skills and, believe it or not, increased property values and lower crime rates.
Although there have been no studies yet on the positive effect Hope Garden is having on local youth, we know for certain that the program has already impacted the lives of local residents. Shaw tells me that her young gardeners are sent home with nutritious recipes and free produce, and their families often send requests for specific vegetables after successfully trying a recipe. She also notes that the kids are frequently heard discussing the value of eating fresh, unprocessed foods, a lesson that we adults often find so difficult to implement.
Perhaps it is Hope Garden’s unique combination of simplicity and effectiveness that helped our young gardeners win the 2008 Healthy Sprouts Award from the National Gardening Association, beating 359 other entries. Or perhaps it is the dynamism with which CFI operates that has determined its success.
Either way, the end result is an increased awareness of nutritional dietary choices, organic farming and sustainable agricultural practices. More importantly, it helps develop not just healthy ideas about agriculture but healthy children who enjoy spending time in a hands-on learning environment.
The picnic that was held to celebrate the award gave me a chance to interact with the kids and see firsthand the pride they felt in their garden. I toured their lovely garden amid enthusiastic chatter about giant tomatoes and future dreams of becoming neurosurgeons. I can’t help but get the impression that their experiences with Hope Garden will open doors and help them achieve their ambitious goals.
I left the picnic that day with a party favor: a charming handcrafted planter with soil and ready-to-grow thyme. I’m sure you’re familiar with the oft-heard and gratuitously used phrase, “it makes the world a better place.” Along with my little planter, I came away with a sense that Hope Garden was one of the rare things that actually does just that.
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