Planting the seeds of community in North Rome

By Siobhan Mulligan, Campus Carrier Features Editor

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Nestled between two houses on Kingston Avenue in North Rome is a small plot of land, sunken below street level and easy to miss if you don’t know where to find it. While no house sits there, it isn’t empty – rather, a collection of raised plant beds fills the lot, sprouting leafy greens and garden stakes. This is the North Rome Community Garden, started last spring as a joint initiative between the North Rome Action Committee and the Rome Community Kitchen to provide fresh food for the community and better the neighborhood.

While many people donate canned foods to community kitchens (also known as soup kitchens), finding fresh vegetables and other nutritious foods can be a challenge. North Rome is one of the many areas of Rome that is considered a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income area where at least 33% of the population lives more than a mile away from a supermarket or grocery store. This leaves them with limited access to these resources, particularly as many people in these areas may not have cars or alternative means of transportation. This is not a small problem either – a 2014 report by the USDA found that 2 million Georgians, among them 500,000 children, live in food deserts throughout the state, and 19% of Georgians cannot afford to buy healthy food on a regular basis. While there may be convenience stores or gas stations in the area, the foods sold there are often prepackaged and may not be as healthy as those found in a grocery store.

Community gardens have become increasingly popular as a way to combat these challenges. The National Gardening Association found the number of households in America growing their own food, whether at home or in a community garden, increased by 17% between 2009 and 2014 to a total of 42 million households. Junior Jake Hager, who has been involved with the NRCG from the beginning, said that the food directly produced by the garden is a secondary benefit in some ways. A more important benefit may be that it gives community residents the skills to begin gardening in their own homes and growing their own food.

While Hager became involved through the Bonner Scholars program, he emphasized that the garden is a community-led effort rather than a Berry-led project, and support and involvement from the residents of the community are vital.

“We strive to do ‘with’ and not ‘unto’ because whenever people come in and try to say ‘We’re going to create a community garden for you people,’ that sometimes doesn’t go over so well,” Hager said.

The local community has been encouraged to participate in the garden in a few different ways. A plant bed was created so individual residents can grow their own plants apart from the ones that go to the community kitchen, and local businesses sometimes donate soil or building materials to the garden, which gives them a stake in its success. Senior Raven Wilson helped start a youth program at the nearby North Broad Youth Center to encourage children to become interested in sustainable gardening. She also noted that even when residents did not work in the garden or get food from it, they appreciated the visual appeal it added to the neighborhood.

The project has not been without its challenges. The garden’s water hose has been stolen before, and its tool shed has been broken into multiple times. Wilson cared regularly for the garden over the summer, and there were a few instances of people taking vegetables meant to go to the community kitchen before the plants could be harvested. While these instances were frustrating, she now feels that it only speaks to the garden’s importance, as people would not steal from it if they did not need the food. Nonetheless, she felt conflicted.

“Is it better to give more food to a group of people that collectively need it, or people that are in very dire need of food in the moment?” she said.

Although the garden is not a Berry project, there are numerous ways students can get involved. For those who feel they are too busy or lack the experience to come and work hands-on, Wilson recommended keeping a compost bin of organic materials and food waste to bring to this or other community gardens as a natural fertilizer. It can be tempting to volunteer during First-Year Service Day or Make a Difference Day, then forget all about it for the rest of the year. Or one may have an idea that could be a great fit for the garden, then neglect to put in the work to make that idea a reality. However, Hager encourages students to volunteer hands-on even when it may not seem so appealing.

He also encourages students to get to know the people whom they help. On the second Thursday of each month at 6:00 p.m.., community meetings at the Rome Community Kitchen give students the opportunity to learn about  individual residents, their lives and their needs before developing a plan to help them.

“I would love to see more Berry students come because it is so eye-opening,” said Hager. “We say we want to help the community – do we even know who the community is?”

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