Our Gardening Programs Sprouts more than Food

February 16, 2024

Our Gardening Programs Sprouts more than Food

February 16, 2024

Throughout Appalachia, children and families go hungry every day due to food insecurity issues, primarily because their limited financial resources mean that they are faced every month with the difficult decision of whether to pay their rent, utilities, or other pressing bills or put food on the table.

Not that long ago, in these distressed rural communities, families supplemented their meager food budget by establishing gardens in their backyards, which provided a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruits for the household, along with plenty more to preserve and enjoy for the long winter months to come until the following spring.

Such is the case in Marion, Virginia, where our partner there, Sprouting Hope, operates its Homegrown program to assist families in establishing gardens in their backyards, just as their parents or grandparents likely would’ve done in decades past.

“Our families will receive one-on-one and in-person assistance from our program coordinator along with financial assistance purchasing supplies,” said Sprouting Hope program coordinator Jennifer Watson in her grant request to Americans Helping Americans®. “These families will be able to call upon our program and education coordinators through phone or email to answer questions or diagnose issues and will receive scheduled visits to monitor progress and provide support.”

Rural Smyth County, with a population of 29,800 as of the 2020 U.S. Census, is ranked 11th in Virginia for food insecurity with a rate of 14.6 percent (4,350 individuals), according to Jennifer, who notes that “this is 48.6 percent higher than the national average.”

And of those, sadly, more than 20 percent of the children living in the county are food insecure (37 percent higher than the national average), according to Jennifer, meaning that on any given day, one in five children living in Smyth County do not know where their next meal is coming from or when their next meal is to come.

Jennifer says that food pantries are intended to provide temporary assistance for acute needs, but most families rely long-term on food assistance as a staple food source.

“The pantries provide low-income families with the food they need, but without stepping stones toward self-sufficiency, it is a somewhat unsustainable solution to hunger,” she said. “The Homegrown program offers a lasting solution to food insecurity, giving families the tools to control their food supply.”

The target population for the Homegrown program is people on food assistance, with an additional priority for families with children under 18 years old.

“Applicants will be selected based on need (employment-, income-, food assistance status, veteran status), personal goals, and ability to maintain their garden long-term,” she told us.

In early spring, the 10 households (20 individuals) selected for the Homegrown program will be assisted with choosing and preparing their garden site, installing fencing and irrigation, and purchasing tools, seeds, and supplies.

“Throughout the growing season, the program and education coordinators will conduct on-site visits to check progress and answer any questions the participants may have,” says Jennifer.

In addition, monthly classes will be held in person and recorded with demonstrations and hands-on components, as well as more traditional teaching with written materials to keep.

The in-person and remote classes will include soil testing, garden planning, crop rotation, gardening techniques, pest and disease control, composting, cooking and food preservation, seed saving, and season extension.  

A resource guide will be provided to all families to help them access other information sources, such as Virginia Cooperative Extension services, workshops, and crop-specific grower guides.

Upon completion of the Homegrown program, Jennifer explained that participants will be eligible to reapply for a second year, the goal of which is to provide them with educational support and limited financial assistance.

“It is our goal to have those families producing higher yields in their future growing seasons,” says Jennifer, adding, “The Homegrown program is funded solely by the American Helping Americans®.”

And in Beattyville, Kentucky, the Puckett Family Community Garden “is operated by a family with lots of land to spare,” comments Americans Helping Americans® Executive Director Cameron Krizek.

“Barbara Puckett and her family tend to the garden themselves where they grow all kinds of different vegetables which they, in turn, give right back to the community.

“The September Place, a nearby assisted living facility, receives a significant portion of its produce from her garden,” says Cameron. “This not only enhances food security for the elderly residents but also improves their nutritional intake.”

Barbara also worked with several elementary classrooms where she taught 4th graders how to start an apple gourd from a seed.

“She was even able to teach them some recipes that go well with apple gourds,” he noted. “This type of hands-on approach is beneficial to the students so that they can get practical uses out of the food they now know how to grow themselves.”

Barbara said that grant funding from Americans Helping Americans® enables her family to purchase seeds and plants, fertilizers and pesticides “and other items to keep the garden clean and bug-free,” jars and canning supplies, purchase tractor parts, and maintain their farming equipment, purchase gas for the equipment and cover travel expenses.

In addition, she says a portion of the funding is also used to purchase items for educational presentations for school children and homemakers.

“Due to the population loss from our community, gardening has just about disappeared,” says Barbara. “We hope to be able to bring back the spirit of growing.

“We want to be able to teach our young families how to raise and garden and be able to feed their families.”

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