Together through urban agriculture

  • The Grow Food Everywhere program created a raised garden bed just outside the Orange Innovation Center for community members to enjoy. Contributed Photo

For the Recorder
Thursday, June 14, 2018

Looking to make a kale salad? Need tomatoes for a salsa recipe? The Grow Food Everywhere program by Seeds of Solidarity Education Center is a volunteer effort to educate and enable community members to carefully pick vegetables when ready to harvest from locally raised garden beds.

They are located throughout town, including outside the Orange Innovation Center, Wheeler Memorial Library and Quabbin Harvest. Tending to the plants is also a crucial community-oriented collaboration.

“The purpose (of the beds) is to help add beauty to the community, to help educate people about what different food looks like growing and to invite people to take some of the food that is growing,” said Deborah Habib, executive director of Seeds of Solidarity Education Center.

In 2003, Habib said the inspiration for the local partnership with schools in the area to build the garden beds stemmed from the passion of Sherry Fiske, the former food service director of the Orange Elementary Schools, who died in 2012.

In partnership with local organizations and community members, the center has over the years built more than 50 raised garden beds throughout the North Quabbin region, including at Athol Hospital, the West River Health Center and Orange Food Pantry. The idea came from a desire to educate individuals on the importance of access to healthy food, along with developing the skills needed to tend to the plants.

“We are not landscapers, we are educators. Every time we put in a garden space, it is always a community event,” said Habib.

Helen Franchi, a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act youth program specialist in Orange, has been partnering with the center for five years. On nice days, one can find her, along with young people from her workforce development program, gardening at the Wheeler Memorial Library garden bed. Being outdoors fosters meaningful conversations, she said, a significant aspect of her mentorship.

“It was a perfect match, because it is walking distance from the office, and it is nice to be able to meet outside of a small space,” said Franchi.

Her program, as part of Community Action, which offers leadership, advocacy and resources for children and families, aims to provide local 17- to 24-year-olds with educational and occupational goal explorations and training. But, she said, working at the bed outside the library builds upon the skills young people need to succeed.

“You need to be able to nourish yourself and eat well to work well. It is not just about dressing for the interview and answering the right questions, it is about taking care of yourself so that you can be your best self when you’re at work,” she said.

Rebecca Bialecki, vice president for community health and chief agent of change at Heywood Hospital, said Quabbin Retreat’s relatively new partnership with the center has allowed patients to get outdoors, as well, and to learn more about mindfulness along the way.

“We are raising awareness about making contact with the earth, being grounded and really looking at recovery as a health and lifestyle choice. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat really healthy food, you can make it available in your backyard,” she said.

About a year ago, Habib helped Quabbin Retreat build a meditation path with flowers and herbs, along with their own raised garden bed, for patients to tend to — from weeding to harvesting the vegetables.

Bialecki said she believes the partnership allows patients to find roots within their own community.

“The most important thing is to understand that recovery doesn’t happen in a vacuum. These folks who are attending our program live locally, so we want to make sure there are connections back to the broader community,” she said.

Last year, Quabbin Retreat did not have access to a kitchen, so harvested food was sent home with the patients. This year, Bialecki said the crops will be used in the food served at the retreat for patients.

At the end of the season, Franchi said the food from the library garden is harvested with help from young people and used for a community dinner, where members of the program can discuss their recent work experiences.

The Grow Food Everywhere Program brings local organizations and people together by manifesting the education center’s mission to life, to transform hunger to health and create resilient communities, Habib said. Though she said the center does not plan to build anymore raised garden beds soon, its website has resources for individuals looking to construct their own beds.

“We need to continuously send the message that everyone deserves good, fresh food and that gardens can help beautify and revitalize every community. The whole idea is that it is possible to grow food anywhere or everywhere,” said Habib.