While many industries suffered major losses during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, one area faced unprecedented demand: garden supplies. This past spring, suppliers of seeds, plants, and other gardening supplies struggled to keep up as people across the country sought to get outside after being cooped up in quarantine, as well as become more self-sufficient as food supply chains faced interruptions and hiccups. Locally, this meant it was time to shine for Community Food Initiatives’ Community Gardens.
CFU largely operates gardens throughout Athens County along with schools, volunteers and local residents who have a stake in the gardens’ success overall and in their own plots. The four main community gardens — Athens Southside, Athens Eastside, Hope Drive, and Nelsonville — plus a number of school gardens across Athens County inspire local residents and students to participate in the local food economy.
CFI created its first garden in 1996 and has evolved and refined its mission over the past two and a half decades. To foster this growth, CFI forged community partnerships across the county to build local food resiliency.
The Eastside Garden demonstrates the importance of community partnership, as it has been located on property owned by the city of Athens since its inception in May 2009. Nestled next to the East State Street Dog Park, its nearly 30 plots sit filled to the brim with life: plants, pollinators, and people. The surrounding fence is decorated with colorful art made by local children during a CFI workshop; the nearby toolshed was built by community volunteers earlier this year.
The Nelsonville Garden is a perfect example of resilience and adaptation. Although the garden faced obstacles in its initial location, a survey conducted by the Creating Healthy Communities Coalition identified the urgent need for a new community gardening space in the town. CFI understood the need to move the garden to a more stable and sustainable location. By partnering with Integrated Services, CFI and community members transitioned a decommissioned parking lot at the Mary Hill Center into Nelsonville’s current community garden.
More recently, CFI has partnered with the Athens Metropolitan Housing Authority to grow its Hope Drive Garden and programming, ultimately bringing together residents of the neighborhood that would otherwise be unlikely to interact.
As the pandemic took hold in spring 2020, Community Food Initiatives found that more and more individuals were interested in gardening, either in growing their own food at their residence or volunteering at one of their community gardens. COVID-19 demonstrated the precarity of the global and national food systems, which increased interest in community self-sufficiency. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of plots that CFI oversees at its gardens nearly doubled, increasing from 61 to 101.
“There was both a need for learning self-reliance through food cultivation and a need for reconnecting within our community,” said Raya Abner, CFI’s community garden coordinator.
Abner is in her second year in this role through the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine COMCorps program, which places volunteers in communities to support health and wellness.
and she has seen both the personal and wider benefits of community gardens here in Athens. Wellness, social connectivity, healing, and community building are just a few facets of the community gardens that Raya sees on a day-to-day basis as she works alongside neighbors.
A host of evidence suggests that access to community gardens carries many benefits. One study from the National Institutes of Health concluded that community gardens increase food access, improve local diets, and strengthen communal bonds of gardeners and other community members.
Katherine Ziff, an Eastside Gardener who has taken on the responsibility for four plots since she began gardening there in March 2019, has noticed these benefits, too, especially as the pandemic worsened. The garden offered her opportunities to safely connect with others and connect with nature during a time when isolation was the norm. A special aspect of the garden for Katherine is sharing her harvest — which this year included flowers, 25 pounds of green beans, butternut squash, spring onions and other produce and herbs — with other gardeners, her neighbors, or CFI’s Donation Station.
Gardeners like Katherine can visit the garden whenever it fits into their schedules, but Community Food Initiatives also offers weekly work parties for staff, volunteers and community members at each of the gardens to provide a consistent time and space for collaboration.
Community Food Initiatives also works closely with schools to deliver programming designed for students across Athens County. In 2019, CFI implemented Sprouts, a garden-based program that specifically engages first grade students in hands-on lessons in their school gardens and classrooms. CFI currently has plans to offer Sprouts programming in every school in the Athens City School District, along with Amesville Elementary.
These gardens and programs offer students experiential learning opportunities in outdoor learning labs that connect them with nature, teach them about the local food system, and allow them to plant and grow their own harvest, all while integrating other subjects like math, science, and art into the garden. By partnering with schools, CFI both inspires and challenges students early on to think critically about local food and gardening while also providing an outlet for physical activity and creativity.
Molly Gassaway, director of garden programs at CFI, acknowledged the challenges COVID-19 posed to their programming, but she and her team knew how important their lessons were to students.
“Working in a garden is a real-world experience; it engages students and encourages them to explore and reason independently,” said Molly.
CFI adapted by producing a series of virtual gardening lessons and trips to local farms to expand student knowledge on the food system in Southeast Ohio, using Zoom to deliver live online lessons and creating take-home lesson kits for students to ensure that students had access to resources that would continue to connect them with nature in spite of the isolation that the pandemic created.
If you’re in need of proof of the success of CFI’s Community Gardens, look no further than the Westside Garden. What was once a space operated by Community Food Initiatives is now independently run by neighbors in the area. The Westside Garden highlights both the effectiveness and necessity for community gardens across Southeast Ohio and beyond. These gardens offer residents safe spaces to connect with each other, with nature, and with themselves while fostering food resiliency in a region where residents often lack sufficient access to fresh produce.