Local Health Department Plants Community Garden to Support Food Bank, Healthy Eating

Submitted By

William Long, Administrator
Florida Department of Health in Jackson County, Florida
May 29, 2015

In Jackson County, FL, the local health department has taken healthy eating into its own hands—literally. Staff last October planted a community garden behind the health department building in recognition of National Food Day, and as a way to support the state’s Healthiest Weight initiative. With training and advice from local experts, health department staff have managed the garden on their own and taken it from a bare plot of dirt to a community engagement and learning tool. The garden—which has drawn substantial community interest—has now produced its first harvest, nearly all of which was donated to the local food bank.

The idea for the community garden first sprouted in 2014 during a visit from the state surgeon general to promote Healthiest Weight Florida, a public health initiative to help Florida residents make consistent, informed choices about healthy eating and active living. During the visit, a Florida Department of Health in Jackson County (FDHJC) employee suggested incorporating a demonstration garden into Healthiest Weight programming, and staff jumped on the idea. However, shifting the garden from idea to reality posed an initial challenge; there was no funding available to support the project, so the FDHJC reached out to local stores seeking donations. The department was able to secure a $500 grant from the Walmart Foundation that covered seeds, plants, fertilizer, lime, and other tools necessary to support the garden.

Once the logistical hurdles were cleared, the FDHJC turned its attention to the dirty work of clearing land and planting. The health department billed the garden plot as a worksite wellness activity and allowed staff the opportunity to participate along the way. Staff brought tools from home, including a tractor, in order to break up the land and till the soil. Their gardening experience ranged from expert to beginner, but excitement was high from everyone. In the end, staff readied a 50 by 75 foot plot of land for planting. The FDHJC then enlisted the local master gardeners from the University of Florida extension office program to provide tips and ideas and what to plant, and how to do so successfully.

Because planting happened in October, staff chose vegetables that would do well in cooler weather: collards, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, and rutabagas. The garden yielded its first harvest in early January, from which the FDHJC was able to donate 30 pounds of broccoli and cauliflower to the local food bank. The harvest was successful overall, producing about 90 percent of what was planted, exceptions being a row of carrots that didn’t produce, and a bunch of kale that local deer ate. Participating staff split the yield 70/30 with the food bank, keeping the lesser amount for their own kitchens. To date, the garden has produced roughly between 75 and 100 pounds of produce.

In addition to the obvious food production benefits, the FDHJC garden has been a great community interest tool. It garnered quite a bit of local newspaper coverage, and even drew individuals down to the health department to watch the planting process and ask questions about managing their own gardens at home. Some community members have even been eager to help out themselves—one man offered to pay out of pocket to fence the garden in when he read about the deer snacking on the kale in the local paper. The health department was unable to accept his offer but was nonetheless appreciative of the interest and excitement it spurned. The garden has also been a great opportunity for staff to get away from their desks, go outside, and break up their work days every once in a while.

Conditions for such a garden were in the FDHJC’s favor—12 free acres behind the health department building, a rural community familiar with gardening and agriculture practices—but staff nonetheless encourage local health departments with the means to develop their own gardens. The experience, from start to finish, has been great with no downsides to report: the garden attracted widespread attention, engaged staff members and the local community, and helps to promote healthy eating. And as spring winds down and summer approaches, the FDHJC is looking forward to another fruitful harvest.

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