Linda Benedict, Van Osdell, Mary Ann | 7/20/2010 1:09:06 AM
Community gardens are blossoming in Shreveport neighborhoods and providing access to cheap, healthy food for the people who live there.
“We create community gardens, and we also create garden communities,” said Grace Peterson, LSU AgCenter extension agent, who has been the driving force behind creating these gardens October 2007.
Shreveport has nine community gardens that serve Food Stamp-eligible individuals and families. One at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church is wheelchair accessible, thanks to a Neighborhood Investment Program grant from Shreveport’s Office of Community Development. Those funds paid for materials for the accessible raised bed, installed by Roger Peterson, Grace’s son, as an Eagle Scout project.
There are five community gardens planned for Shreveport Public Assembly and Recreation sites, Peterson said. The first harvest at the model site in August 2009 had children eating the produce on the spot.
That garden included 17 plots and a melon patch. All of the plots and the melon patch are maintained by the youth who attend the Valencia Recreation Center programs. Stoner Hill residents have received some of the harvest from the garden.
The first harvest produced four cucumbers, zucchini and yellow squash. “The children rinsed them off with a hose and ate them on the spot,” Peterson said.
“We taught gardening and nutrition lessons to about 150 pre-teens and teens last summer,” Peterson said. “The teens will be growing, harvesting, cooking and eating produce from the garden. If there is any left, they will be hosting a neighborhood green market to sell the produce to the underserved Stoner Hill neighborhood, learning job readiness, how to market items and customer service.”
The garden will also address the “food desert” issue. Neighborhoods considered a food desert do not have easy access to a grocery store, Peterson said.
Last year children planted seeds and transplants, observed earthworms and learned how to read the Louisiana Vegetable Planting Guide and food labels, Peterson said.
In April, 75 tomato plants, 50 pepper plants, green beans, cucumbers, squash and a few eggplants were planted. The plants were wrapped with foil to prevent cutworms and plots were mulched.
“The kids continue to be excited and are learning how to grow fresh food,” Peterson said.
“Agents such as Grace provide educational programs that help those on a limited budget make healthy food choices consistent with the most recent dietary advice reflected in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid,” said Vicky Chesser, registered dietitian and another LSU AgCenter extension agent. “People have been very receptive to the idea. Even those who are not as confident in their gardening skills are wanting to get involved. They don’t feel like they are doing it alone.”
Among volunteers at the gardens are members of the Red River Coalition of Community Gardeners. “The coalition’s mission is to create and maintain community gardens in the Shreveport-Bossier area, using sustainable practices, to grow healthy food, to provide education for healthy lifestyles and to empower people to share their unique contributions,” Peterson said.
The group has a website, www.rrccg.org, and has started a newsletter, “New Growth.”
“We had 1,495 volunteer hours reported for 2009,” Peterson said. “The fiscal year started October 1 and volunteers from this area have pledged close to 3,300 hours.”
Peterson branched out to advanced trainings in Alexandria and Many to Master Gardeners and extension agents who would like to coordinate a community gardening project in their area. After the 12 hours of classroom training, Master Gardeners are asked to commit 10 volunteer hours each year toward coordinating a community gardening project in their Master Gardener group.
The training highlighted sustainable garden practices that include year-round gardening, improving the soil, composting, mulching, watering, fertilizing, pest management, cover cropping and plant support systems.
“With Master Gardener volunteers and 4-H volunteers, we have the opportunity to expand community gardening for youth and adults and increase knowledge of agriculture,” said Bobby Fletcher, assistant director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service. Community gardening promotes a safe food supply, incorporates healthy food into the diet and even provides exercise for those participating, he said.
As a new Master Gardener, Rosemary Cole has gone to St. Catherine’s garden every Saturday since the summer. “It was initially a way to put in my required 40 hours of volunteer time,” she said. “Now I look forward to the people I see every week, the change in the garden and the satisfaction of knowing that I’m contributing to something that really helps. The garden produce goes into St. Catherine’s food pantry and feeds many, many residents of Cedar Grove.”
Peterson said the youth community garden partnerships are bringing people together and as the gardens take shape and character, so do the children. At Valencia, they have a weekly class to enrich their knowledge and skills.
“One of the things I notice is that the students are more willing to try different types of fruit and vegetables,” said Shalon Lewis, manager of Valencia Park. “They want and have the will and power to learn where and how fruits and vegetables grow. Helping with a community project gives the students a better perspective on life and their future. This helps them believe that all things are possible when people come together as one and work together.”
“Instead of being in the house bored, instead of being at the store, I pick fresh food,” said Rangel Miller, 9.
Peterson said she would like to see healthy food systems as part of the Shreveport’s Master Plan. She is an active participant in the Community Advisory Group for the Shreveport-Caddo 2030 Master Plan, representing the health caucus.
“Community gardening connects people, teaches them how to engage their neighbors and forms an organizational structure,” she said.
Shelley Ryan Gray, director of partnerships at Community Renewal International, said
Rosie Chaffold and the Allendale Garden of Hope and Love are indivisible. “Its presence inspires me as she inspires me as my friend and a true champion of what is right and good.”
She said she met Chaffold in 2000 “when Allendale was a scary and rundown place to live and visit” and saw within her and others the determination to make a difference. “They just needed a few friends with energy and resources. I was happy to be one of many who stood with her. The garden became a statement about the beautiful future she saw for Allendale and wanted others to imagine,” Gray said.
Steve Crane of Longview, Texas, said he and his wife met Peterson and Chaffold
earlier this year. “We have a community garden at our church, and we were wanting to expand the concept into the community at large in Longview and we wanted to see how Shreveport did it,” he said.
“I hope y'all know what a treasure you have,” he said. “Shreveport has made a commitment to this program and now, during a time of economic hardships, Shreveport residents have a program to grow their own food. Y'all have really done a superb job.”
Leia Lewis, founding director of a nonprofit that established Sankofa Gardens in Shreveport, an organic community garden, said the grassroots effort builds community, strengthens families and honors the earth.
“I volunteer because growing food is a practical and fun activity that encourages people to work together, eat well, exercise and care about one's neighborhood,” Lewis said.
“Working at Sankofa Gardens has taught me to better value the wisdom, lifestyle and work ethic of my elders and ancestors. Like many Louisianans, the older generations in my family lived and worked on farms. As I strive to be more green, in fact, I am making simple, smart choices like the ones my parents and grandparents embraced – buying less, saving more, repurposing things around the house, harvesting rain water, growing food, running fans, hanging laundry to dry and cooking meals,” Lewis said.
The LSU AgCenter is one of 11 institutions of higher education in the Louisiana State University System. Headquartered in Baton Rouge, it provides educational services in every parish and conducts research that contributes to the economic development of the state. The LSU AgCenter does not grant degrees nor benefit from tuition increases. The LSU AgCenter plays an integral role in supporting agricultural industries, protecting the environment, and improving the quality of life through its 4-H youth, family and community programs.