Growing a community

Community groups in the Mahoning Valley are doing their best to turn vacant lots into vegetables and providing new sources of food to those who might lack access to fresh produce.

“We are trying to address the issue of Warren being a food desert,” said Sheila Calko, GROW program manager with Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership. “Some neighborhoods lack fresh produce. People who cannot afford produce have greater access to produce through our community gardens.”

The GROW program is an urban agricultural project that TNP has implemented to utilize vacant spaces by transforming them into urban gardens.

Calko said that the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership took on the management of the vacant properties which were the former locations of the Dickey, Roosevelt and Garfield School Buildings.

Joan Sullivan of Warren is garden chair of the Central City Unity Garden, located on the corner of Mercer Avenue and Washington Street in Warren. The garden is part of the GROW program. Because of concerns about the quality of the soil where a house had been torn down, the garden uses raised beds to grow vegetables.

“The Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership helped me to fill out an application for a grant to start a garden space in 2012,” Sullivan said. “The garden is producing a great amount of vegetables and we give away our produce for free. We pay $10 dues to cover water usage. Any of the produce that we do not consume ourselves, we give away for residents of the neighborhood.”

Sullivan said that the Central City Unity Gardens grows a variety of beans, peppers, tomatoes, okra, lettuces, herbs, broccoli and cauliflower.

The presence of the garden has led to benefits in the neighborhood where it is situated, Sullivan said.

“Since we started the garden, we see a lot of families and people walking their pets throughout our neighborhood,” she said. “Before it was rough to walk down Mercer Avenue and Washington Street and now with the Central City Unity Gardens it has changed for the better. It’s becoming more of a community.”

In addition to helping set up community gardens, the GROW program also offers educational opportunities.

Calko said that the GROW Program offers numerous educational programs.

“We offer cooking demonstration classes, and we have a program called Growing Garden Leadership, which helps garden leaders take on a leadership role in their community,” Calko said. “This summer, we will be offering nutrition education classes on how to cook healthy with our produce.”

Sullivan said that at the garden space they also volunteer to teach canning and seeding classes.

“We teach canning in the fall and for the spring, we go down to the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership’s Greenhouse, taking our kids and gardeners,” Sullivan said. “We start our indoor plantings at the Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership’s Greenhouse.”

Once again this year, TNP is managing the Warren Farmers Market, at Courthouse Square, which starts June 3 and runs through Oct. 7.

TNP and participants the GROW program aren’t the only ones who are building communities through gardening.

At St. Patrick’s Church in Youngstown, parishioners can take the opportunity to grow their own produce in one of the church’s 18 garden plots or simply visit the produce table the church sets up with the fruits of their labors.

Greg Davner is community garden coordinator at the church.

“This is our fifth year at St. Patrick’s Church with the community garden, and this is my second year coordinating the garden,”?he said. “The garden plots are full this year. We have 25 people with plots and we have four volunteers who help us out.”

Davner has seen the community come together through the garden.

“It’s amazing how a piece of one acre land has helped bring people together,” he said.

The Rev. Ed Noga, pastor at Saint Patrick’s, said that before the community gardens, several homes that were on the land where the gardens are located were torn down.

“At first we tried growing corn to see how it would grow, and the corn grew. Then from there, a few other houses were torn down and we decided to put in a garden. Now today, we have two acres of gardens,” Noga said. “The last couple of years, we harvested honey from our beehives at the garden.”

St. Patrick’s isn’t the only religious community turning to gardening. Lisa Ramsey, is coordinator of Laird Community Garden in Warren, a community garden run by the Movement.

“The Movement has a heart for realizing lasting, positive change in the Mahoning Valley,” Ramsey said. “After opening our first location at the Eastwood Mall in October of 2012, we began to seek opportunities to engage in the community, and through conversations with Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership we decided to partner with them and the residents of that neighborhood to create a community garden. We saw this as an opportunity to transform a previously vacant space in the city into a vibrant place where neighbors could interact and where fresh food could be grown.”

While the Movement is in charge of managing the garden, TNP provides support and assistance as needed.

“Last summer our site included individual and family gardeners from the neighborhood, Warren City Schools, the Mahoning Valley Hope Center, and the Movement Church – all of which managed some portion of the gardening,” Ramsey said.

“Our garden just completed its first year, and we have definitely noticed some differences in that portion of the neighborhood. Having a presence on the lot provided many opportunities to engage with neighbors, people walking through the neighborhood, and we certainly saw a number of pick-up games develop. While the growing of fresh healthy food is incredibly important and definitely one of our primary goals, we find that simply having a positive activity in a neighborhood strengthens the fabric of that neighborhood – drawing people out of their homes and into conversation,” Ramsey said.

As the long winter comes to a close, community gardeners are looking to clean up their plots and prepare for the the new growing season.

“The gardens are looking pretty good,” Joan Sullivan of Central City Unity Gardens said. “We had a good year last year and we will have an even better year this year.”