Leaks, Tomatoes and Beans, Oh My!

Posted On September 17, 2015 By | No Comments on Leaks, Tomatoes and Beans, Oh My!

girl in gardenMy name is Macy Margolin, and I am the Children’s Programming Specialist AmeriCorps here at COTS’ family shelter. When I arrived at family shelter, they had a small container garden, made out of several storage bins. My goal was to build a 100 square foot, raised bed, garden in its place, to supplement produce for our healthy snack and meal program for youth. I thought this might additionally make a great space for education, respite, and most of all, fun.

I began planting seeds in my office in mid-March. I rigged a single bulb grow light to the side of my desktop and shined it over tomato, pepper, eggplant, and onion seedlings. As we waited for the lumber and soil to arrive, I grew nervous that the seedlings might grow leggy before the garden was complete. Alas, we received all of the materials by early May, and immediately began building the garden.

Those hoops pictured above and below are a flexible grade of PVC pipe. They work with a special plastic to make mini greenhouse structures, called hoop houses, as seen in the back left of the bottom photo. The hoop houses create a warm environment for the crops, shielding them from the wind, rain, frost, and snow of a Vermont spring. If you look closely you can see that several young plants, the same ones that once lived in my office, now grow beneath that greenhouse. What you can’t see in this picture are the hundreds of carrot, lettuce, bean, and pea seeds scattered among the seemingly barren beds.

garden hoops

The children staying at the family shelter had a hand in each step of the gardening process, from planting seeds in my office in early spring, to shoveling soil into the raised beds, to watering, harvesting, and of course, eating. Some kids really enjoy the work, while others just enjoy watching the garden grow and transform.

child and veggiesInspired by a national reading program that rewards children for reading throughout the summer months, I created a “Summer Veggie Challenge” that similarly incentivizes children to eat vegetables. They receive points based on how nutritious a vegetable is and how much of it they eat. They also receive bonus points for trying a vegetable for the first time. I have never seen children so crazed over eating vegetables.

The federal program that funds our weekly youth dinners provides around three dollars a child per meal. The garden has been a tremendous economic benefit, alleviating the stress of tight budgeting. Because we now grow the majority of our produce, I have more room in the budget to purchase higher quality groceries and to expand meals to feed not just the children but also the entire family.

Two of our guests this summer, a single father and his son, found the garden’s greatest benefit not to be the food itself, but the peaceful space the growing food provides. The garden offered a reprieve from the challenges a young single parent and a tantrum-prone toddler often face. While dad watered plants or weeded the beds, his son played in the soil with abandon.

One challenge the father faced was transitioning his son to healthy food. As a young and unprepared father, he had started his son on sugar and junk food. His son was so excited to yank carrots out of the ground, that for the first time he ventured toward pressing vegetables against his lips. You could see him curious, not quite ready to try, but getting closer. On his last day in the garden, he smiled as he sucked the juices from a fresh tomato.

COTS believes in the importance of providing exposure to new ideas, concepts, and experiences to children staying in shelter. Having a garden is a great way to expand their horizons and bring nature into an urban setting in a way that lets people directly interact with it. It just has so many uses, like as an outdoor classroom, or to teach science and nutrition. You can have a food desert when there is fresh food all around someone if that person doesn’t understand or recognize foods or doesn’t know how to enjoy them. Introducing foods to kids through the growing process is a really good way to help fill in the holes of a food desert.

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