New Oxford Community Garden Plants Seeds of Change

Community Garden in Oxford, Ohio
Community Garden in Oxford, Ohio

James M. Loy, Miami University

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Before the real ground work began, there was nothing but grass. It was an open organic tapestry ripe for change, transformation, and growth.

And then the seeds were planted and the roots began to grow. Life flourished, and the local children and their families became increasingly excited about the coming harvest, one that could ultimately yield healthier, happier, and more sustainable lives for everyone involved.

Both literally and figuratively, these transformations are currently underway at Parkview Arms, a housing complex chosen as the site of a new community garden and youth summer camp in Oxford, Ohio.

Garden ready to harvest

“When we started there was nothing here,” says Dr. Beth Miller, Miami University assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics in the College of Education, Health and Society (EHS). “We built the raised beds. We built the fence. And engineering students built the watering system.”

This community garden is part of an interdisciplinary, USDA funded outreach project designed to start breaking the cycle of various health disparities often perpetuated throughout low income communities. And it’s led by Miller, who specializes in obesity prevention and community-based participatory research, which often brings her in direct contact with the people her work strives to help.

“Community based research is essentially where you are partnering with the communities to help them solve problems that they think are important,” says Miller. “So we work together. I know research. But I need them to help me understand the issues.”

“It’s that translation into a real-world population,” she continues. “Free living, to see how we can make this happen. Let’s see what kind of behavior change can happen through education, through skills development, and capacity building to have them facilitate the change.”

The Issues

For many low income families, the challenge in developing and sustaining healthy lifestyles are linked to a number of things related to diet and access to healthy foods.

Some families lack proper nutrition and food preparation skills. Or perhaps they never acquired a positive attitude toward healthy eating. And among young children especially, developing positive perceptions and taste for nutritious foods at a young age is particularly critical. Without proper education and exposure to healthy foods, unhealthy habits can easily spread from one generation to the next.

For other families, budgetary constraints alone might make healthy eating a low priority.

“We’ve done work with Head Start,” Miller says. “We asked the mothers and they often said, ‘We are so stressed about whether our water is going to get shut off, whether we are going to have enough money for rent.’ So when you think about nutrition, it is not just nutrition. They are more concerned with having food to put into their child’s belly. In a perfect world they would care about what that food was. But that becomes lower on their priority list when they are worried about all these other things.”

Furthermore, the location of a community can also be an issue, particularly in urban areas, which often lack access to quality grocery stores or green spaces. Instead, omnipresent corner stores usually offer cheap, processed, high fat, high salt foods and little else.

And every community is different. Each is a microcosm onto itself. They all have a unique battery of idiosyncratic challenges that must be understood before they can be solved.

Even among some low income populations that do have access to green spaces or community gardens, many residents, for example, don’t feel comfortable using them. And that’s how the residents of Parkview Arms felt too.

So Miller decided to bring the community garden to them.

The Garden

“I did focus groups with people at the Oxford Food Pantry and Parkview Arms families, to really understand their interest in gardening,” says Miller. “There is a community garden in Oxford, but they didn’t feel it is part of theirs. So we actually built a garden in their backyard.”

This is the part where the engineering students built the solar powered watering system, and where Miller and her EHS kinesiology and health students built the raised beds and planted strawberries, beans and tomatoes, peppers, melons and squash, and more.

Then they built an herb spiral. And once the crops are ready to harvest, there will be cooking and cutting demonstrations planned as well.

In between planting and harvesting, Miller and her students visit several times a week. And to supplement the community garden produce, they distribute weekly bags of vegetables harvested from Miami’s Institute for Food Organic Farm, which also include simple recipes created by Miami undergraduate summer scholar Aisha Fichtner.

They also work alongside the kids, teach a variety of gardening skills, and offer various nutrition lessons.

“I talked about phytochemicals,” says Amy Skeels, a Miami University pre-med student and community nutrition major. “And with 10 to 12 years olds you’re not really thinking that they will engage well with that material, but I have kids who really clung on and really enjoyed it. We’ll look at lettuce and I will ask, ‘What does this do for you?’ And the kids will just call it right back out at me.”

The goal is to establish a connection to the soil and to teach the residents, especially the summer camp kids, how to garden, how to cultivate a preference for nutritious foods, how to build the foundation for a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.

“Obviously you don’t do that in a summer,” Miller says. “But in the long-term, we can have a different trajectory for these kids. If they see where these foods are coming from, they are more interested in trying them.”

The Seeds of Change

Here, alongside the fruits and vegetables, the seeds of change are also being planted, which could ultimately lead to the kinds of behaviors that will increase the wellbeing of low income populations.Fresh veggies and grocery bag

And it’s this same perspective that interested Skeels as a pre-med student.

“We definitely need to start focusing on preventative care and this project was a really cool way to focus on that,” Skeels says. “If we can limit the number of kids who are obese then that will limit the number of adults who become overweight and hopefully we start to stop that cycle.”

And even though it is still in its early stages, this project shows every indication of having a positive effect. Most of the kids are really enjoying the process and they’re eager to learn more.

In fact, one young man, who’s maybe 12 or 13, has even shown such ownership in the garden, that he’s begun to give tours to nearly any newcomer he meets.

“He clearly is very proud of it,” says Miller. “So who knows? Maybe he’ll go on to agriculture school.”