LSU AgCenter spearheads community gardens

Grace Peterson, Chesser, Vicky  |  6/17/2008 11:51:17 PM

News Release Distributed 06/17/08

An innovative LSU AgCenter program is helping people in several Shreveport neighborhoods grow their own vegetables.

Dr. Grace Peterson, a garden coordinator with the LSU AgCenter’s Family Nutrition Program (FNP), is sharing her knowledge, resources and techniques and serving as a resource to help community leaders sustain the gardens.

FNP agents provide educational programs to help people on limited budgets make healthy food choices consistent with dietary advice reflected in the in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the food guide pyramid.

“FNP has worked to help educate people on the key concepts of a healthy diet, and adding the gardening aspect was the best next step we could take,” said Vicky Chesser, LSU AgCenter dietitian.

“People are receptive to the idea,” she said. “Even those who are not as confident in their gardening skills want to get involved. They don’t feel like they are doing it alone.”

The first garden work day this spring took place on March 22 in Shreveport’s Highland neighborhood, and the LSU AgCenter has been helping with other existing gardens.

Noel Memorial United Methodist Church last year gave permission for the Highland Community Garden to be planted at its location as an outreach project for its 100th anniversary. The church has a large food pantry, and the Highland Area Partnership (HAP) is a co-sponsor.

“Grace came along, and her energy and enthusiasm made the garden burst into a flower, as it were,” Dorothy McDonald said of Peterson’s efforts. “She helped us galvanize the community and we had more involvement.”

McDonald, a former executive director of HAP, said, “I am actually not a gardener but got inspired by it. I am working in other neighborhood gardens and started one in my backyard.”

The Highland Community Garden doubled in size this year with additional plots for public use. Some gardeners have put signs on their plots. “Nicholas and Grandpa’s Plot” is one.

There is talk of adding fruit trees and a labyrinth in the future, said McDonald, who believes other gardens will sprout in the Highland neighborhood.

Other community gardens are in Mooretown and Hollywood, while existing flower gardens in Allendale and Cedar Grove are adding vegetables with Peterson’s help.

Peterson said the gardens teach leadership, organization, diversity, conflict resolution and creativity – “all centered around gardening.”

“This connects people, teaches them how to engage their neighbors and forms an organizational structure,” she said.

The gardens also provide exercise, beauty and family time. Peterson said she hopes participants also will share healthy recipes and “stories about grandma’s garden.”

Rosie Chaffold, who started the Allendale Garden of Hope and Love in 2002, said it truly has made a difference.

“It has improved my neighborhood a whole lot,” she said. “Residents will not damage that garden. They take pride in it.”

Chaffold said she chose the location because it was a vacant, weedy lot – “an eyesore, dumping area, rat-infested, dangerous drug corner.

“I knew it was not going to get better and that I was not going to sell my home, so I asked the man who owned the lot if I could do it,” Chaffold said of starting the garden.

She said she wanted something beautiful there, so she planted shrubs and trees.

Now, Chaffold is interested in planting vegetables, and the LSU AgCenter has been helping with the planning.

Others who heard about her idea have helped with donations. First United Methodist Church provides the water.

“Little by little, it grew,” Chaffold said of the garden. She thanks Community Renewal for providing resources to cut down trees, a female Shreveport police officer who built a fence and someone who mows at no charge.

Margaret Myles met Chaffold at an event where Chaffold talked non-stop about the Allendale garden.

Myles said she thought to herself, “Anything she can do, I can do better,” and created the Cedar Grove Garden of Love.

Myles said it started as a flower garden but now has room for vegetables since a house was torn down. She has planted Irish potatoes, English peas and collard greens and has asked Peterson for help identifying the right crops and when to prune.

She has hosted an event called Chat and Chew at the location and provides grilled food for a picnic.

Myles has received assistance from nursing and exchange students and members of her church.

Myles, 81, said eating fresh vegetables and moving help keep her healthy.

“I am doing the Louisiana 2 Step,” she said, referring to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana program that promotes two simple steps to better health – eat right and move more.

Shreveport gardeners and community leaders recently visited some of the gardens in a tour organized by the LSU AgCenter and other groups in partnership with Community Renewal. At every stop, residents spoke of how the gardens helped relationships grow and helped build pride and goodwill in their neighborhoods.

Peterson also led tours and talked about sustainable gardening at an “Open House All Over Shreveport.”

Distinguished visitors to the Allendale garden have included Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Sen. Mary Landrieu and golfer Hal Sutton.

“It is positive for any neighborhood or city to have gardens,” Chaffold said. “They provide healthy food and beauty and something to look forward to, especially where vacant lots are. Beauty brings pride to a neighborhood.

“Something good and beautiful may provide hope for other areas.”

The community gardens are one way for low-income people to stretch their food budgets.

“Approximately 13 to 20 percent of the Shreveport-Bossier City area people live in poverty,” Chesser said. “With gas and food prices getting higher and higher, people are looking for a way to save money.

“There is no better solution to a healthy diet and saving money than to grow your own food,” she said. “Community gardens are making this possible for many in our area.”

The Mooretown Community Faith Garden is blossoming and with Peterson’s help, it now has paths between the rows, said Ruby Small.

“She taught us how to utilize our garden better and make things easier to handle,” Small said of Peterson. “People are respecting the garden.”

In fact, a donation from the Louisiana Association of Disability Examiners in Shreveport will help build a raised garden bed accessible to handicapped or elderly gardeners. Another grant has provided a water system and fence.

Small began the Mooretown garden by asking each neighbor on her block for $1 for seeds.

“I walked house to house, and many of them said they came from the country,” she said.

Someone donated a tiller, and the rest is history.

“We all took ownership in it,” said Small, who is enjoying the herbs and sunflowers.

Peterson suggested herbs to go alongside the greens, onions, peppers and tomatoes.

Calumet Refinery is now a garden sponsor, and the Alliance for Community Development helped with planting.

“Calumet provided everything we needed for the garden,” Small said.

As part of the United Way Day of Caring, Peterson and volunteers from a local casino also participated in a work day to build raised beds at the Bossier Council on Aging on May 9. Another volunter was a Master Gardener.

The following week, volunteers planted tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, squash, cantaloupe, cucumbers, collards, green beans, Swiss chard and Southern peas.

A meeting to learn more about community gardens will be held June 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the LSU AgCenter Caddo Parish Office, 2408 E. 70th St.

Peterson plans to create a handbook to help other parish extension agents establish community gardening programs.

“We are hoping to expand the FNP program through these gardens,” Chesser said. “What better way to help people choose healthy foods than by helping them grow it for themselves.

“Teaching the concepts of what foods we need to stay healthy is easy to do in a garden,” she added. “In a garden, everything around you is good for you.”

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Contacts: Grace Peterson at (318) 741-7430, ext. 1503, or gpeterson@agcenter.lsu.edu 
Vicky Chesser at (318) 741-7435, or vchesser@agcenter.lsu.edu

Writer: Mary Ann Van Osdell (318) 741-7430, ext. 1104, or mvanosdell@agcenter.lsu.edu  

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