With this being our first year as part of the Grow Appalachia program – and our second year operating a community garden program in Union County, KY – it would be a good time to introduce ourselves and take some time to look back at our first year… We accomplished a lot during the last growing season and we hope to continue learning and growing our program with help from Grow Appalachia!
Planting the Seed
The Union County Community Garden Coalition (UCCGC) is an initiative sponsored by the Union County Fiscal Court to create partnerships between local organizations, businesses, and community groups to grow gardens at schools, churches, senior citizens centers, and low income areas and increase access to healthy, locally grown food. UCCGC’s primary goal is to teach people how to grow, prepare, and preserve their own food so they can grow local, eat healthy, and save money. With the support of Judge Executive Jody Jenkins, the project was started in August 2012 as a unique partnership between the Union County Fiscal Court and the Appalachian Coal Country Team – sponsored by the AmeriCorps VISTA program and the Office of Surface Mining.
In small, rural communities access to affordable healthy food is a problem for many families and senior citizens living with limited resources. More than 18% of Union County’s residents live below the poverty line while nearly 33% suffer from obesity. This often creates a problem when talking to people about eating healthier foods that could prevent diet related illnesses and save money. Many organizations serving low income families and those addressing health related issues in the county wanted a new approach. Local elected officials throughout the county began discussing the prospects of creating a community garden program and supported developing an AmeriCorps project. In August 2012, the UCCGC was formed to determine the interest and need for community gardens throughout Union County.
Shortly after the project began, we started developing partnerships with local organizations and municipalities. The UCCGC partnered with 16 local organizations to develop an action plan and install community gardens throughout Union County. By May 2013 the program had at least 90 volunteer gardeners helping grow and maintain 8 community garden sites. Volunteers formed garden committees, recruited volunteers, and met as community advisory board to guide the project. A leadership class worked with volunteers to develop a produce distribution network, identify next year’s gardening sites, and promote the project locally. Local extension agents were consulted to develop an educational curriculum. The program also worked with the county jail to install and maintain a 1.5 acre garden providing work experience and educational opportunities for inmates while helping offset the jail’s meal expenses. State and regional grants along with donations from 22 local businesses provided the funding necessary for the program.
Overall, the UCCGC coordinated the efforts of 160 volunteers who donated more than 2,200 hours of their time to plant, grow, harvest and distribute produce to those in need. The program installed 9 community garden sites with a total area of 7,200 square feet. Over 360 individuals benefitted from distributed produce or garden related programs. Approximately 10,180 pounds of produce was grown and distributed. Local businesses and regional organizations worked to help the program secure over $22,000 in support from grants and donations while local businesses and municipalities donated over $15,000 of in-kind materials and services. In total, the program generated approximately $77,300 worth of resources for Union County!
With new goals and partnerships, we will draw on our first year of successes, learn from our mistakes, and increase our effectiveness to better serve needy families and senior citizens. Based on the success and increased interest during the 2013 growing season, the UCCGC will continue expanding its garden program for the upcoming year. The project already has commitments from at least 4 new community garden sites and will expand current gardens as space and volunteer time allows. A new home gardener program will be developed to serve lower income families more directly using educational programs provided by the county’s extension service.
With additional growing space including more in-ground gardens and over 100 raised beds, we hope to grow over 15,000 pounds of produce to distribute to needy families throughout the county. Plans are already underway to build a greenhouse to provide learning opportunities for volunteer gardeners and help offset the cost of purchasing starter plants. The Coalition will continue using its 160 volunteers and increase partnerships with other organizations already serving needy families and senior citizens. We hope to recruit over 100 additional volunteers and serve over 500 individuals with garden related programs in the 2014 growing season.
With our first year behind us, we are looking forward to partnering with the Grow Appalachia Program and learning from their gardeners and partner sites. With the continued support of our volunteers and all of the many businesses, organizations, and interested individuals we will continue growing a healthier Union County!