Digging into health

by Jan Spann

Last month I wrote about the Faulkner County Urban Farming Project, and soon after, I attended a one-day conference titled “Making Your Garden Grow: Building and Sustaining School and Community Gardens.”

The audience included school faculty (including schools that educate children with special needs), cooperative extension staff, Master Gardeners, university researchers, farmers, Arkansas GardenCorps, FoodCorps and AmeriCorps NCCC members, and others with a connection to building and sustaining school and community gardens, including a juvenile probation officer who wants to teach those under her guard to develop positive life skills.

The topics ranged from the essentials of planning and building a bountiful garden to tracking progress and how to find funds and friends to help support a proposed garden.

A key thread throughout all presenters and participants was the critical importance of providing for and teaching our youngest generation about healthy eating. The rise of pediatric obesity may shorten life expectancy by two to five years (New England Journal of Medicine). Our state has one of the highest rates of child hunger in the U.S. It’s not that we are bad parents, but fast and processed foods are the most affordable choices for many parents. This fare is simply not nutritious enough for childhood growth and development.

Michael Drake, chief service officer for Little Rock, said that the largest city in Arkansas has evidence-based results that show when kids eat healthier and are active, their test scores improve. 

“The city of Little Rock has a value proposition that says ‘it is unacceptable for 17,000 Little Rock children to be hungry,’” Drake said. The city started with two public elementary schools, which became the baseline to show the correlation between improved health behaviors and increased academic scores, and is expanding to more schools in Little Rock this fall.

Studies show that when we connect ourselves back to growing some of our own food, we eat healthier—and also more cheaply. One of the biggest challenges in involving children in gardening is that while they quickly recognize chicken nuggets or fast food logos or jingles, they struggle to recognize and enjoy the many vegetables and fruits required for a balanced diet.

So what’s the solution? The general consensus from this conference was to involve kids and adults in gardening. Starting a garden requires a few key components, starting small being one of the most important. “The only place where my yard gets the six to eight hours of sun required is in my front yard, so that’s what’s planted there,” Janet Carson, the first lady of Arkansas horticulture, said at the conference. Having a front-yard vegetable garden brings the neighbors out to visit and even pitch in to help. Though Little Rock has had a community garden for more than 30 years, it wasn’t convenient to her home, which is another key to success.

“Approach your neighbors, friends and nearby family to find a spot to plant a few seeds and plants the first year,” Carson said. Other speakers suggested calling the mayor to see if there’s a public space like the library with a small plot of land available. Other options to consider are schools, senior citizen centers, public housing, nursing homes and also churches. Your site must have water available, which is another reason to start small and gauge the resources you’ll need to sustain the garden.

One is a lonely number, so find partners—either individuals or businesses—to help fund the seeds, plants, mulch, fertilizer and other items you’ll need to start and maintain the garden. In-kind contributions can be very helpful. Whether it’s a tiller to prepare the land or torn bags of soil that can’t be sold at the garden center, use your imagination to think of “investors” in your endeavor. One community garden used donated carpet remnants as the pathways through the garden, so don’t underestimate the second life of many discards!

One topic at this conference was named “Fund-Raising and Friend-Raising” because having a support network for the jobs at hand is as important as financial support. Set aside time to thank your contributors; perhaps send baskets of produce and notes on garden progress and impact.

You and your partners can decide if you want this to be a year-round garden or just seasonal. Arkansas has many cold-weather crops such as broccoli, kale and cabbage, but if you and your partners are fair-weather participants, you might decide to let the garden overwinter with mulch or a cover crop. You should have a written agreement to state the goals, timeline, organic or not, maintenance routines and how the costs will be spread.

In a session entitled “Creating Quality Garden Programs,” the speakers remarked that a community garden brings people together in more ways than just gardening. Tri Cycle Farm on two acres in the heart of Fayetteville hosted an open house to thank the church across the street that had allowed the gardeners to use its parking lot. Soon the connections meant that the church received food for its community dinners, and the farm now uses the church kitchen for its summer kitchen classes. The farm owners learned that fresh produce like eggplant and squash weren’t picked up after the dinners, which led to learning that folks didn’t know how to cook unknown veggies.

At one middle school in a rural area, the students had growing contests between their food plots and also included art project contests for signage and scarecrows. Another small town suggestion was to enlist the support of the local grocery store to set up taste and cooking demonstrations.

One great resource in every county is the Extension Office, which falls under the University of Arkansas umbrella. Ask for the family consumer science agent, who will know county and city contacts to help you start this project. Other resources include: Truly Living Farm in Atlanta (trulylivingwell.com) and Full Circle Pantry, a U of A campus food pantry.

school gardens, consider Project Learning Tree (plt.org ) and Journey North (learner.org), both of which may provide curricula, interactive lesson plans, grants and activities. Other sites to research are Life Lab (lifelab.org), Educate the Whole Child (wholechildeducation.org) and the Growing Classroom (gardeningwithkids.org).

We all have one commonality of purpose when it comes to food — we all need to eat. The difference, however, becomes the choices we make, often filtered through budget limitations or lack of knowledge. Start the conversation in your community, and let’s grow some healthier kids.

“Making Your Garden Grow: Building and Sustaining School & Community Gardens” was sponsored by Arkansas Community Foundation, the Delta Garden Study and Childhood Obesity Prevention Research Program at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute, U of A Clinton School of Public Service, Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) and Chamberlin Family Foundation.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.