Community Gardening as Preventative Medicine
As an avid home cook, I have long been familiar with all that is to gain from getting into the kitchen. Cooking is a creative outlet, a celebration of cultural tradition, an invitation for friends to gather around the table, and affords us a say in the nutritional value of what we eat. It was not until serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA in the Community Gardens Program at Capital Roots that my appreciation for great food came full circle, evolving to include the plant along with the plate. In a short time I have seen how growing fresh food alongside others takes on a medicinal quality with the potential to improve the physical, social, and emotional well-being of a community.
The title of Community Engagement Coordinator VISTA tasked me with capturing the impact of 54 organic gardens, which give Capital Region residents in 4 counties access to over 1,000 plots of vibrant growing space. Sometimes the impact is clearest in numerical form, such as when gardeners report the number of pounds of produce they harvest in a season. This was the basis for the first Harvest Count Data Collection, which concluded that participating gardeners reaped an average of 219 pounds of produce from their plots in 2018. Often times, the potential of a plot is captured in conversation. A mother coping with her youngest daughter’s diabetes diagnosis reveals how growing healthy food gave her family a sense of power over the disease. In the next plot over, a gardener finds comfort in growing crops from her home country, which she uses in a Mulukhiyah recipe carried all the way from Lebanon. Perhaps the two visit the garden at the same time every afternoon, and discover that while coming from different backgrounds they share a desire to better know their neighbor (and a love for spicy cuisine, too.)
After committing to a full season, a gardener can expect to walk away with hundreds of pounds of fresh produce, hours of physical activity, friendships made with fellow gardeners, and an invaluable sense of accomplishment. They may then go on to use their produce in healthy recipes that can be shared within their circle, enticing others to want to take up a plot of their own. What is achieved is an all-encompassing meeting of human needs, from physiological nourishment to socioemotional nourishment by way of cultivating purpose, shared experience, and belonging to a larger group.
Through this lens I have come to view community gardening as a form of preventative medicine. Modern treatments are progressively savvier, but the prevalence of illness is daunting. As much as society has advanced in the way of treating ailments, the focus must shift to measures that thwart from the source. Community gardening answers a widespread need for better nutrition, exercise, stress alleviation, and environmental consciousness, all in the best interest of public health. A community gardens program is also self-perpetuating, as new members are naturally recruited through word of mouth and tangible rewards. I myself am a recent example; this summer I will be nurturing my own plot in Schenectady, New York. My hope is that as a member of the gardens community, I will be able to better highlight the reach of the program and engage members in meaningful ways. Of course, there is also the promise of fresh food, fresh air, and fresh perspective from a summer in the garden.
Siena College AmeriCorps VISTA Fellow
Capital Roots Community Engagement Coordinator