The Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work & Play grant is funded by the New York State Department of Health. Funding is awarded to local health departments and community organizations to improve health by preventing and reducing rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. This grant is being implemented locally by the Cayuga County Health Department.
Two ways to improve the health of the community are to make it easier for residents to eat healthy foods, including more fruits and vegetables, and to be more physically active.
Community gardens serve both purposes in meaningful and practical ways. Cayuga County now boasts six community gardens funded by the Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work & Play grant. A community garden can be defined as any plot of land that is gardened by a group of people. Community gardens are as varied as the gardeners and neighborhoods in which they thrive.
Last year, the city of Auburn approved a one-year community garden pilot program on city property as an economical way to re-purpose park property. The community garden is located at St. Francis Park on 25 Underwood St. in Auburn. There are eight plots. Gardens were planted the weekend of May 19, and the first crops have been harvested, consisting of lettuce and radishes.
The second community garden in Auburn was started this year, and is located at the Case Mansion on South Street, which currently has four plots. The third community garden is the first garden outside of Auburn and has been established by the Union Springs Academy in Union Springs. This location currently has three families gardening.
The three gardens mentioned above are the traditional type of community garden, meaning there are plots of land gardeners can use to grow produce for themselves or whomever they choose. Each gardener manages and harvests an assigned plot in a larger public garden.
Last year, two community gardens were started by nonprofit organizations: the Auburn Housing Authority (Melone Village site) and the Booker T. Washington Community Center. There was so much interest and success at Melone Village last year that for the 2012 growing season there will be a second garden. Residents expressed interest in wanting to grow their own food. There are now nine families gardening at Melone Village. The Booker T. Washington Community Center plans to have fall crops.
This year, the six community gardens have 21 families participating.
Gardeners at each garden chose to plant seeds or seedlings (which had been started in smaller containers). Many plants were donated by Ken and Audrey Mochel, the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES Life Sciences and Agriculture Program, Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency Head Start, and other private gardeners.
The gardens are thriving, and many new friendships are being made. Many of the community gardeners have some experience, while a few have no experience. Gardeners meet weekly or every other week with the staff of the grant or experienced volunteers to get help with questions, and work together on their plots.
About one-third of the families have children and bring them to the garden to help. Most wanted a plot because they either live where there is no space for a garden (such as an apartment complex), or their yard was not suitable for a garden (no sun).
As the season progresses, there will be canning and freezing classes to provide education on how to preserve their homegrown produce for winter. Preserving the produce for use later in the year is important and where gardeners will see cost savings and better nutrition all year long. There is no greater pleasure than eating food you have grown yourself. This winter, the grant will have more educational programming in connection with gardening.
A new and exciting effort will be starting soon, as we experiment with season extension techniques to grow fresh produce year-round using low tunnels and high tunnels (or unheated greenhouses). Gardener and author Eliot Coleman outlined these season extension techniques in his books "Four Season Harvest" (1992) and "The Winter Harvest Handbook" (2009). He experimented with his own garden and developed methods of growing cold-tolerant crops using unique methods. These methods enable a gardener to eat fresh, organic vegetables all year long.
Currently, Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency's Head Start Garden and the Calvary Food Pantry/BOCES Partnership Garden are being assisted in season extension practices by Rachna Vas, president and CEO of Quench & Nourish, a not-for-profit organization in Marcellus. This fall, Quench & Nourish will assist community gardeners with these techniques to encourage greater participation in growing food year-round. It is important to provide readily accessible fresh greens all year because it may translate to better eating habits! For more information about Quench & Nourish, visit www.quenchandnourish.org.
Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work and Play formed a group for community gardens. We partnered with volunteers who run the Calvary Food Pantry/BOCES Partnership Garden, a donation garden providing fresh produce to participating county food pantries. Together, we have created a community garden networking group called Cayuga Grows! The purpose of the group is to coordinate community gardening efforts throughout the county. The goal of Cayuga Grows! is to educate families in gardening to decrease hunger, increase the health of families, and build community. For information on community gardens and Cayuga Grows! contact the Cayuga County Health Department at 253-1560 or visit www.modelhealthychoices.com.