Could gardening be central to community revitalization? We explore that idea in our Green Goes Mainstream series.
A People’s Garden stands outside USDA headquarters in Washington, DC, modeling how fresh lettuce and tomatoes can nourish a community’s spirit. Food from gardens like these goes to feed the hungry in all 50 states. This garden project is not designed to feed the hungry indefinitely, but rather to inspire healthier futures. As you explore the country, you’ll see that some garden projects are even more deeply integrated in local community wellness efforts. One such place where community gardens are taking root is Central Appalachia.
Volunteers built the raised beds full of cabbages, beans and tomatoes near public housing in Pikeville, Kentucky. Residents have invested as little as five dollars to rent the garden spaces. By mid-summer, the first tomatoes are starting to ripen and will soon need to be picked. This garden encourages organic growing methods without toxic, persistent pesticides.
“I think people need to be as self sufficient as they can be,” explained local businessman Roger Ford, who serves on the Sustainable Pike County organization that established the garden. Residents who’ve typically obtained all their food with government vouchers can now learn about the origins of food and even take agricultural classes. Ford sees too much reliance on handouts being part of what’s kept Central Appalachia in poverty. “We’ve got to try a different path,” Ford said.
An even larger educational garden with several hoop houses is established just across the state line in West Virginia. There the city has worked with the Williamson Health & Wellness Center on several revitalization efforts under the umbrella Sustainable Williamson. The garden site has inspired a Farmers’ Market and fitness programs, as well.
Soon one entire hoop house will grow fresh produce with organic methods for a new restaurant opening in town. Community members in both states hope more community garden facilities can eventually open along with a USDA certified food processing facility for rent to local entrepreneurs.
Ford and others in these Central Appalachian communities are collaborating on wellness-minded programs, self-sufficiency education and economic opportunities. This, in an area of historic high unemployment and chronic illness. For their efforts to revitalize the area, the Williamson community was recently awarded a Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The focus of innovative community leaders has been to inspire a healthier population and community spirit while exploring long-term economic solutions within several counties in the region.
“We’re trying to drive patients to take better control of their own health,” explained Director Jenny Hudson of the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition. “We’re doing everything we can to make healthy food accessible,” explained Hudson who shared her excitement for a new local restaurant. Local medical professionals often prescribe a diet of more fresh fruits and vegetables and give patients vouchers to spend at the local Farmers’ Market.
Alexis Batausa went from running a difficult first mile to become the enthusiastic Wellness Promoter for walks and runs with the Diabetes Coalition. “It’s been kind of crazy how things have transitioned in the past two years!” shared Batausa. The area hosts everything from lunchtime walks for office workers to frequent 5Ks and even a Hatfield-McCoy marathon. Hudson says several diabetic patients have been able to able to achieve reduced blood sugar levels when taking part in the healthy lifestyle program.
Executive Director Natalie Young of the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson credits running for helping to revitalize the area. “I can personally say that I have seen so much improvement in our town since running has taken hold. What started as a few runners in town has now grown to a club of over 100 members.”
Outreach Coordinator Eric Mathis of Williamson Health & Wellness Center affirms that something has taken hold in town since about the time they started planting a garden. “There is definitely a shift toward eating healthier.” He wouldn’t necessarily use the term “green,” but Mathis alluded to a healthier way of life planting the seeds for a flourishing community,”When you’re talking about people’s health, you’re inevitably talking about the environment. Because all of those factors link back into people’s overall well-being.”