Healing With Gardens

A Cornell program helps communities grow what they eat.

Edens are sprouting amid sprawl all across Suffolk County. Concrete gives way to greenery. Neighbors of all shapes and sizes gather to tend the earth. Children learn how to grow food for themselves, and sometimes, food pantries are stocked with the surplus. The sunlight shines.

In Riverhead, dozens of people banded together to transform a garbage-strewn piece of town-owned land with an abandoned comfort station into 36 thriving plots along the river. Passersby can pick berries and peas grown along the communal border. A handmade sign reads: “The Town of Riverhead welcomes you to the River and Roots Community Garden. Take a vision. Get collaboration. Plant the seeds. Watch it grow. Enjoy its beauty. Reap the harvest. Promote a healthy community.” When the garden sprouted, it inspired the town to clean up and renovate the dilapidated comfort station and add graffiti-proof paint. Now a family playground is planned for the surrounding area, and a nearby bike rack and picnic tables.

The Riverhead garden and four others in Hampton Bays, Copiague, Patchogue and Brentwood are thanks to the Creating Healthy Places Program, managed by the Cornell Cooperative Extension. They are part of Cornell’s broader attempt to fight the escalating rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, and to lead children and families toward healthier eating. In 2010, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Family Health and Wellness Program was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the New York State Department of Health to launch the gardens as a complement to its existing community nutrition programs.

“A third of New York’s kids are obese or overweight,” says project coordinator Susan Wilk. “And obesity among children and adolescents has tripled over the past three decades.” The goal is for the gardens to become self-sustaining in five years. The program also includes plans to improve nutrition education; increase physical activity at childcare centers and after-school programs; improve walking and biking through trail systems and install bike racks; create farmers markets (so far they’ve launched in Yaphank, Flanders and Southampton); and work with grocery stores and restaurants to promote opportunities for healthier eating.

“It’s to help the community on many levels,” says program educator Elizabeth Takakjian, who was hired to teach communities how to garden and now regularly gives workshops throughout the county. Cornell Cooperative Extension also offers regular nutrition and cooking demonstrations at schools, farmers markets and now in community gardens.

“There’s a lot of science behind what goes into these community gardens,” says Cornell Cooperative Extension’s executive director Vito Minei, P.E. Many of the program’s initiatives come from Cornell University’s direct research on the need and benefits of educating poorer households on how to prepare healthy meals on a limited budget. This might mean using food stamps at farm stands—many food-stamp recipients don’t realize that most farmers markets throughout the state accept them. Or it might mean teenage youth, formerly lured by gangs or drugs, who are now taking pride in cooking healthy meals, and taking food home to their families, Minei says.

“This is really an upwelling of what’s going to be a phenomenal success. We’re hearing about it in places all over the country,” says Minei. It’s about family involvement, wholesome meals, community beautification and playing to the strengths of Suffolk County’s agricultural community, says Minei.

For communities looking to launch a garden, the Creating Healthy Places program offers planning assistance and financial support for the start-up. Wilk says the largest obstacle for projects is still the initial costs, which the grant helps with but doesn’t cover completely. In many cases, the community donates the plot, and community leaders rally to get compost and soil, lumber for raised garden beds, fencing and gardeners. “One of the real needed ingredients is to have a total buy-in at the local government level, as well as among community members and great garden leaders,” says Wilk.

Last year, the program helped establish three community gardens: River and Roots Community Garden on Main Street in Riverhead; Good Ground Community and School Garden located on the grounds of Hampton Bays Middle School; and the Treehuggerz Garden, a school garden at Copiague High School. This year, they are supporting the establishment of two more in Patchogue and Brentwood.

The community gardens help people get access to healthy foods in areas where there are “food deserts”—places where people have to travel more than a mile to get healthy fruit and vegetables. Instead, they can rent a patch for about $25 a year and grow their own organic produce all year long. The patches already have waiting lists, scholarships and collective plots.

Growers are supposed to weigh the produce they collect, with scales donated by Cornell, and records already show the gardens have produced thousands of pounds of food, with some of the overabundance donated to local food pantries. The vegetables from Hampton Bays Middle School (which was one out of three New York State schools to win a national Green Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education) plans to donate vegetables to the lunchroom.

The middle school’s garden is unusual because it is tended to by both students and 23 community members (who must sign in at the office if they’re gardening during school hours). Health coach and fifth-grade teacher Joan Moran, who hosts and supervises the patch with elementary teacher Judy Leopard, had recently gone back to school to learn about healthy nutrition and had a strong desire to share her new knowledge with her students. She contacted Wilk, who helped to bring the garden to fruition. In many cases, Moran learned, the kids are starting from ground zero—some had never seen vegetables such as tomatoes in their natural, raw state. Moran set up a matching game where the kids would have to find the vegetable in order to learn what it was.

“It makes them aware of what kinds of foods are healthy and that they need to eat well to perform well in school,” she says. Students now gather to make salads and pesto, and enjoy healthy recipes.

With a $500 grant recently won from Cornell University, the students will buy a composter and learn how to create nutrients for their soil. “They learn they can grow their own food, realize the importance of sustainability and what that means for the earth and the soil,” she chuckles, adding, “and they realize that worms are a good thing.” In April the children painted a huge mural of fruit and vegetables for their patch.

In the next three years, Cornell intends to help establish and mentor five more gardens. But existing gardens have already multiplied their footprint. In Riverhead, the abandoned lot has also transformed to a community gathering and learning place with benches, water fountain and a wind-turbine-and-solar-powered light post. Gardeners of all ages meet up for potluck garden meals. People spend their lunch hours enjoying the green view from the community benches. Families bring their children, and elders tenderly give the children simple gardening lessons. Garden organizers recently hosted a lecture on making the most of the 10-by-4-foot plots. In early June, they hosted a yard sale to fund-raise for the garden. Some vegetables are distributed to the needy by the Long Island Council of Churches. Two beds are tended by the disabled from Maryhaven and East End Disabilities. Another is for children and the community and is harvested by a Girl Scouts troop who bring it to a local food pantry. Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate brought Spanish-speaking families and immigrants to the garden, and they often can be seen smiling and giving River and Roots community garden cofounder Laurie Faivre Nigro a thumbs-up as they grow fresh vegetables. “The people involved in the garden itself tell me it’s an oasis,” says Nigro. “It’s something they look forward to coming to do. It’s a place where they love being.”

In Hampton Bays, Moran says gardening is influencing the children‘s lifestyles. “A lot of the students this year are telling me they started a garden at home, and they’re excited about it,” says Moran. “And when they’re eating, they’re starting to make healthier choices.”

 Christine Giordano writes from Sag Harbor, where she planted an organic herb garden this year and harvested an overabundance of basil.