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Community-garden projects taking hold

by Will Hehemann Special to The Commercial | July 8, 2021 at 2:48 a.m.
Shaun Francis, Extension horticulture specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (second from left) and Danniel Bailey, UAPB student worker (far left), help the Jefferson County Master Gardeners set up a sweet potato plot. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)

Shaun Francis, extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, cites a senior citizens center at Eudora as an example of the impact made through the university's extension horticulture outreach efforts.

As part of a sustainable food systems project, UAPB extension personnel helped install a garden at the center.

"The Eudora Senior Citizens Center is not a live-in center, rather it is a place where local seniors come by bus to interact, play card games and dominoes or knit," Francis said. "After we helped the administrators install a garden, the seniors started eating fresh produce they might have otherwise not had access to – cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and spices, and collard greens, for example."

Francis said the university's horticulture outreach work strives to bring nutritious food to communities in food deserts, areas in which people have limited access to affordable and nutritious foods, especially fresh vegetables and fruits. Some of the people living in these mostly low-income communities must walk more than a mile to get to the nearest supermarket.

"We at UAPB try to partner with organizations who already have or want to set up an urban garden," he said. "We assist with setting up the garden and then provide technical assistance as needed."

HELPING 8 COMMUNITY SITES

Currently, UAPB provides support to eight community gardens in central and southern Arkansas, which are managed by organizations including churches, community centers and retirement homes.

Francis has recently been working with administrators of St. John Alexander Tower, a living facility for low-income senior citizens at Pine Bluff, in setting up a garden.

"The administrators see the opportunity to garden as a kind of horticulture therapy for their senior residents, who are able to manage the garden and help with the harvest," he said. "Most of the harvested produce is going to be used for cooking classes at the center led by the UAPB Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education. Thanks to the program, the residents learn how to prepare easy and nutritious recipes using fresh produce."

Barraque Street Missionary Baptist Church at Pine Bluff is another example of an organization that has recently sought the assistance of UAPB in setting up a community garden.

"The members of the church are responsible for the garden's maintenance," Francis said. "They plan to share produce among members of the community and will also host cooking classes. Lately they have been harvesting cucumbers and squash."

Francis' other recent collaborations have included a group of women at Little Rock who want to grow sweet potatoes, as well as a woman growing peas, greens and sweet potatoes that she distributes to neighbors. He has also started meeting with a group of pastors who are planning to create a garden to distribute food to locals in need of fresh produce.

Francis provides on-location technical assistance when the managers of the gardens need help. They may be worried about spots on leaves or have questions about watering or fertilizing. Recently he assisted the owners of a garden when they said their tomatoes and peppers were wilting.

"They said they had used a planting medium made from composted rice husks," he said. "However, I realized the material was too porous -- every time they watered, the water was just washed away. And because the material was not completely composted, the plants were being robbed of their nitrogen, which explained their pale look. In the end, I helped them dig out the old planting material and replace it with a 'super soil' medium made from real composted materials."

PROPER CARE

Francis said successful community gardens require consistency and constant maintenance.

"There have been times when we have helped set up gardens at organizations that eventually fell through because the people had too little time or too few volunteers," he said. "If you want to set up a community garden that lasts, it is important to work with a group of people you can count on to maintain it."

Francis said he is happy to see more members of the community wanting to contribute to sustainable local food systems in and around Pine Bluff.

"The people creating these gardens are professionals who want to make a statement," he said. "They want to make a difference by making sure their neighbors and other members of the community have access to healthy food. And these are exactly the kind of projects UAPB wants to help grow."

For more information on UAPB's sustainable food systems initiative, contact Francis at (870) 543-0029 or franciss@uapb.edu.

Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.

The Barraque Street Missionary Baptist Church at Pine Bluff is an example of an organization that recently sought the assistance of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in setting up a community garden. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)
The Barraque Street Missionary Baptist Church at Pine Bluff is an example of an organization that recently sought the assistance of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in setting up a community garden. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)

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