A shared garden creates a vibrant and healthy community for low-income families

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A shared backyard results in a lively and healthful community for minimal-money people

By: Theo Peck-Suzuki | Report for The us

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) – Just off East State Street, on the outskirts of Athens, is the low-income housing development at Hope Drive. At the far end of the road, a small community garden brims with plants.

The tomatoes are the most eye-catching. As anyone who has tried to grow them knows, they have a tendency to expand when left on their own. New wooden stakes have been added to persuade them upward. Unripe tomatoes hang heavy on the vine.

Community Food Initiatives (CFI) operates the garden with funding from the Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Unlike some other community gardens in Athens, the plot at Hope Drive exists specifically to meet the needs of low-income residents. It’s a source of fresh produce and a way of teaching people how to grow their own food.

A scarecrow made by Hope Drive residents guards tomato plants. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB/Report for America]

It has transformed a loose collection of Section 8 housing into a tight-knit community.

Each summer, CFI hosts a garden club at Hope Drive.

It’s the best place for residents to meet fellow gardening enthusiasts.

“We’re new here to the area,” said garden club regular Leslie, who only offered her first name. She spoke enthusiastically about what the garden meant to her. “It was actually nice to get in with the community, doing something that – contributing.”

A retired 911 dispatcher from Nelsonville, Leslie moved to Hope Drive with her thirteen-year-old daughter about a year ago. Mobility issues prevent her from going far from her apartment.

“When I had my own home I gardened a lot,” she recalled. “Flowers and vegetable garden. I canned. I miss it. I miss it a bunch.”

The garden has given her a chance to get her fingers in the dirt again.

Robin, another attendee who gave only her first name, said the garden has been a boon to both herself and her adult son who often joins her.

“Value of this has been, on a scale of one to ten, a ten,” she said. “Getting around, talking to other people, getting to make stuff, learning different recipes… I think it’s fantastic.”

AmeriCorps member Raya Abner is CFI’s point person for the Hope Drive garden and plans the club activities each week.

“When we’re outside, we do a craft, we garden, and we have a snack,” she explained. “When we’re inside, we do a craft and something food-focused,” such as pickling.

Robin recalled their last pickling day fondly.

“Pickled onions,” she said with a smile. “They were really good.”

A garden craft made from recycled material to look like a flower takes a spot in the community garden
A craft made from recycled material to look like a flower takes a spot in the community garden at Hope Drive. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB/Report for America]

On one rainy Tuesday, the group gathered in the Hope Drive community room to make garden decorations out of recycled materials such as bricks and old CDs. Abner bustled from one group to the next, chatting with attendees.

“She’s a ray of light,” quipped Leslie. “That’s why her name’s Raya.”

The following week, Abner had to change her plans at the last minute. She scrapped a pickling activity and instead decided to convene the club outside to do garden work and make wind chimes.

She doesn’t have a good way to broadcast information like this to the neighborhood – just a group text chat with a few of her most dedicated gardeners. Fortunately, that’s all she needs.

“I’ll send out a text when I’m doing things,” she said. “A lot of things happen by word of mouth, so, if I let a few gardeners know that something’s happening, they’ll tell their neighbors and then their neighbors will come.”

The garden alone can only grow so much food. But the garden club also gives CFI a way to share healthy, fresh ingredients more effectively with the Hope Drive community.

“They give us recipes, and then they come every few times a year and pass out produce,” said Robin. “It’s amazing, some of the stuff they come up with. Like the zucchini chocolate muffins. Strawberry applesauce, we’ve had this year… We’ve had homemade barbecue sauce which is really fantastic.”

The path to creating the garden club is one others could potentially replicate.

Molly Gassaway joined CFI as its Director of Garden Programs about five years ago. The garden plot at Hope Drive already existed when she arrived, but it had long since fallen into disuse.

The idea for how to revitalize it came through Hope Drive residents themselves.

“We did a big survey of the neighborhood when we started,” Gassaway explained. Those early conversations gave them crucial insight into what programming would actually meet the needs and desires of the people they were trying to serve.

Wind chimes made by Hope Drive residents decorate a garden bed.
Wind chimes made by Hope Drive residents decorate a garden bed. [Theo Peck-Suzuki | WOUB/Report for America]

Gassaway and Abner said they hope to expand the garden this fall by installing two raised beds that wheelchair users can tend while seated. They are still trying to secure the $1,000 in funding they need to implement the project.

“[Residents] have told me, ‘Some of us can’t get back to the garden,’” Abner explained. “And we have families here that want to garden but can’t make it back here. […] So they’re like, if we have raised beds up here, more people would be involved in gardening.”

Anyone interested in supporting the Hope Drive garden can make a donation to CFI either online or at the Athens Farmers Market.

Robin, meanwhile, says she’d love to see the gardening club expand.

“If you live in Hope Drive, come and join us,” she said. “That’s all I have to say. It’s fun, it’s a joy, you get to meet other neighbors.”

Theo Peck-Suzuki is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. He covers Children and Poverty for WOUB Public Media.

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