Can an urban garden strengthen a southside neighborhood while helping some residents fit back into their skinny jeans?
That's what the Community Food Bank and a local school are setting out to do with a new garden on a stretch of land along the Santa Cruz River—and if it works, they'd like to start similar projects in neighborhoods across Pima County.
The land, located across the street from the county jail on Cottonwood Lane, is no stranger to cultivation. City High School has held gardening workshops there since 2006, and prior to that, it was part of an urban-gardening project called the Farmacy Garden. But this is the first time the land will be used to this scale—with the full backing of the Community Food Bank, which is making the project part of its ongoing effort to increase access to healthy food, while training a new generation of urban farmers.
The garden is a joint project of City High School and the Community Food Bank. Both of their names are on the lease, and both will cultivate crops while offering gardening and other educational workshops.
There are seven acres in all, but about 2 1/2 are slated for the first planting. Shovel-wielding workers in big hats braved triple-digit heat there on a recent morning, doing the preliminary work that will culminate in a verdant garden in the coming months, if everything goes according to plan.
Leona Davis, education and advocacy coordinator for the Community Food Resource Center of the Community Food Bank, said officials insisted that the community have a say in how the garden is designed and operated, so they held meetings to see what would best serve the area.
"What it's starting to look like is a lot of garden beds tended by neighbors and other community members, some shade structures for classes and workshops, and—one thing we've heard a lot of people mention—a playground," said Davis.
For now, Food Bank employees and youth apprentices are clearing dead trees, digging garden beds, shaping water-harvesting earthworks and otherwise sprucing up the area. When that's done, they'll get started erecting the tool shed, a toilet and shade structures.
"That feels like plenty for the moment," said Davis.
Davis said the Community Food Bank will use the garden to train young urban farmers through the Youth Farm Project Apprenticeship Program. A similar program has been held at the Food Bank's 10-acre Marana Heritage Farm for years, growing in popularity each season.
The program has already produced numerous teenagers who bring the basics of running small-scale production farms back to their communities. Offering the program within the city limits will help push the message about the value of local vegetable production deeper into the urban landscape.
"These programs teach everything from producing the vegetables to harvesting and selling them, every part of the process," said Davis. "We've been bringing volunteers out to Marana for so long, when there's an obvious need for these fresh fruits and vegetables in Tucson neighborhoods."
Robert Ojeda, head of the Community Food Resource Center of the Community Food Bank, said the garden was made possible by money from Pima County's Communities Putting Prevention to Work program, which is paid for with federal stimulus money through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant.
The main purpose of the grant money is to fight obesity through community programs and education, and Food Bank officials have used the funding to launch a variety of programs that have an overarching goal of increasing access to healthy food, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
Pima County Health Department statistics put the childhood obesity rate in our area at about 30 percent for children ages 2 to 5, with the poorest nutrition in low-income neighborhoods. That extra weight causes a variety of health problems later in life, such as heart conditions and diabetes.
The Food Bank's idea is that people will eat healthier food if it is easy to find it and afford it. A number of steps have been taken in an attempt to make that happen.
Many farmers' markets take food stamps, WIC vouchers and other nutrition-assistance vouchers in an effort to put more vegetables on the tables of families. Farmers' markets have also been established outside of health clinics and in low-income neighborhoods.
"The grant looks at helping people have access and choices when it comes to what they eat," said Ojeda. "This farm is going to be located in an area of town that really needs that access."
Chris Lowen, the Food Bank's southside urban-farm manager, said $130,000 in grant money will help pay for community outreach, tools, an outdoor classroom, irrigation, a few structures, water-harvesting cisterns, compost and other necessary items.
Lowen said the first crops will be planted in the demonstration gardens at a monsoon celebration featuring live music and a potluck from 5 to 8 p.m., Friday, July 15. The garden's first community potluck takes place the next day, on Saturday, July 16.
Those inaugural events are just the stepping-off point, says Ojeda, who would like to see the farm develop into a community gathering place for workshops, community gatherings and other events.
"What we want to see is for this place to become a place where people can learn how to grow food, and maybe even sell it through our consignment program," said Ojeda.
The consignment program allows residents to sell homegrown vegetables at a number of farmers' markets across the city. It is currently one of the only avenues in town for backyard farmers to turn crops into cash on a consistent basis.
Ojeda said there will also be programs that teach environmental stewardship by encouraging practices like seed-saving, composting, water-harvesting and, as Ojeda puts it, "Ultimately, community-building."
"We hope this is a place where people come and build community together. We'd like it to become a model for our city and county," said Ojeda.