Group hopes to spur interest in homegrown veggies

Published 1:26 am Saturday, April 4, 2009

With the economy showing no real signs of improvement, a local group is working to help people in Suffolk learn a skill that many have forgotten — or never learned.

Home vegetable gardens once were the pride of the amateurs who cultivated them, and Americans relied on them to supplement their diets and help keep their checkbooks in balance.

But the widespread affluence that arrived during the latter part of the 20th century, along with the easy availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at the local supermarket, caused many families to turn their old garden plots to other uses.

The Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community hopes to get those folks to pull out their tillers, plant some seeds and begin putting those old plots back to use growing food, instead of grass.

To that end, organizers of the Suffolk Community Garden Project have two garden plots in production, one at Holland Baptist Church and another at the East Suffolk Recreation Center.

The idea is to model what can be done in a small space in two very prominent locations.

“We’re trying to think ahead of the curve in helping people learn ways to sustain themselves,” said Rex Cotten, an Extension agent who is a member of the task force formed to get the project off the ground.

Cotten and Kay Cherry, who teaches in the graduate program in public health at the Eastern Virginia Medical School, came up with the idea during a conversation about the state of the economy last fall.

“We want to make a difference in the lives of people who have been hurt by this economy,” Cherry said. “Everyone understands that this is something that just needs to be done.”

Nearly all of the produce grown in the garden patches will be donated to area food banks and church pantries, she said. But more important is the group’s long-term goal: to encourage others to plant their own gardens as a hedge against the poor economy and a boost to their health.

“They’re models on which we want to build,” Cherry said.

After developing the idea, they went for help to the Suffolk Partnership, where they received an eager welcome and a willing sponsor for the effort.

Since then, volunteers have knocked on doors and rung up businesses looking for help and for donations. All of the seed, plants and fertilizer have been donated, along with the use of tillers, tools and tractors. Volunteers have turned out to help with the planting — though more are needed — and even Cherry’s public health graduate students are pitching in.

What the organizers are really hoping for, though, are a few senior citizens and experienced gardeners who will come out to teach a new generation how to provide food for their own tables.

“People are afraid to try gardening, because they’ve never done it before,” she said. “This is not rocket science.”

A successful effort will have many benefits, she added. Those who take on the group’s challenge — organizers hope to have 40 community gardens planted next spring — will save some money on their food bills, they will experience reduced stress from working outside on a worthwhile project and they will be able to substitute fresh vegetables for the less-healthy canned versions, which often contain additives that, she said, can contribute to obesity and other health problems.

Cherry said volunteers will be needed throughout the season, especially during the April-September period, to weed the gardens and help with the harvest.

To volunteer, or for more information, call Cherry at 446-6122, Carol Warren at 514-0146 or Lakita Frazier at 514-7250.