In southwest Virginia, rates of poverty, obesity, and disability are higher than the state average. Many food drives are only able to take donations of cans and dry storage goods, so fresh produce is a rare commodity in food pantries. This makes it even harder for poorer citizens to eat healthy, creating a correlation in poor health and low income. Programs like Healthy Families – Family Farms provide produce to people in food precarious circumstances. Another way to provide fresh produce is by incorporating garden spaces into food pantries, as in the partnership between Appalachian Sustainable Development and Faith in Action.
For years, Abingdon Faith in Action has been providing food to low income, elderly, and disabled families who rely on this service to mitigate food shortages. They have a garden space on the property that is maintained each year by ASD as a demonstration garden for teaching classes. This collaboration has provided students with a space to learn gardening skills in an applied learning, hands on instructional delivery. Nutrition classes have provided students with eating healthy and preparing or preserving food safely. Harvests in the garden that aren’t used for learning are donated to the food pantry patrons. This mutually beneficial partnership is a model for food pantries that could be duplicated across the region.
When the food pantry is open, patrons can visit the garden, pick what they like, learn about how their food grows, and find out how to store and cook what they picked. Some of the visitors like to help and want to pull weeds, dig up potatoes or carrots, and even mow. Folks like to share recipes and ideas for incorporating their harvests into the boxes and cans from the pantry to increase serving size and improve nutrition. The best part is that the varieties in the garden are all heirloom, organic varieties that are not commonly found in grocery stores. People get to try these rare varieties and experiment with new foods.
This project is entirely unfunded and relies on small donations for supplies and volunteers for labor. The community’s love for the space itself has made it easier to maintain by providing a regular flow of groups who want to volunteer. A recent donation of fruit trees to line the garden ensures a long future for this project, so in the interest of long term sustainability, if you are ever looking for a way to contribute to improving the lives and health of low income residents, there may be no better cause than this garden.
This blog post was written by Agriculture Education AmeriCorps VISTA, Della McGuire.