Growing Local Roots

 Community Garden Helps Kids Grow

 By Jared Field

 

Among the two acres of land that houses Tabitha Farm Urban Homestead and Community Garden sits a jungle gym, a swing-set and a basketball court where kids can come and play. Within the garden sits raised beds contained by two-by-fours that local kids can claim as their own.

 

When Katie Pearson bought a two-acre foreclosure in Kalamazoo, Mich. she dreamed of turning it into a garden where people from the community could come and enjoy each other’s company and learn to grow produce.

 

Pearson’s community garden first flourished when it opened by the name Tree of Life Urban Homestead.  When people began confusing her garden with a nearby Christian school that shared the same name, Pearson changed the name to Tabitha Farm Urban Homestead and Community Garden.

 

“It’s a free space where people can grow their own food and learn how to take steps to become more self-sufficient,” Pearson said.

 

 When Pearson was looking for a house, she wanted one that she could put a lot of work into. Among the two-acres of land that houses the garden, she has installed a jungle gym, a swing-set and a basketball court where local kids can come and play. Within the garden sits raised beds contained by two-by-fours that kids can claim as their own. In these garden beds, local residents can plant and harvest strawberries, blueberries, asparagus and a plethora of other healthy fruits and vegetables, Pearson said.

 

“Lately, it’s also been a place where the kids seem to benefit most. I’ve changed my philosophy to provide a safe place where kids can come to play, stay out of trouble and learn a valuable craft. It’s better than having them sit out on the corner breaking bottles with nothing better to do,” Pearson said.

 

Pearson’s craving for hard work and progress is evident in the friendly environment she has created for local residents and their children to practice farming. At 35 years old, Pearson is a full-time student at Western Michigan University majoring in Africana studies, a mother of four children and a carpenter by trade.

 

“Just two years ago my family and I were living in subsidized housing and it wasn’t the ideal living situation. I’ve been in situations where I’ve witnessed poverty and marginalization and I wanted to do something to help people get away from that,” Pearson said.

 

 In 1998, Pearson traveled to England, Ireland and New Zealand as a WWOOFer.  A WWOOFer is the title given to volunteers of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a worldwide network of organizations linking volunteers with organic farmers and helping people share more sustainable ways of living. In return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

 

 “It was such an amazing way to travel and I had the opportunity to acquire such an awesome skill set. None of this would have been possible without that experience, and I find myself truly blessed,” Pearson said.

 

Pearson said that WWOOFers are now traveling to Kalamazoo, Mich. and camping out in Pearson’s backyard to assist in her quest to obtain organic consumables on her urban farm. The organic farming culture is one where people are always ready and willing to offer a helping hand, she said.  

 

“It truly takes a village to raise a child. Without the help of the people in the community and the WWOOFers, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve this,” Pearson said.

 

WWOOFing gave Pearson the drive to build her community garden. Traveling has taught her to be more open and gave her a better idea towards how other cultures exist and interact, Pearson said.

 

“I found this home for a very low price and have worked really hard until this point. I believe that when you’re given so many blessings, the only thing you can do is to give back,” Pearson said.

 

Living in a low-income area where there is a consistent police presence, the idea of building a better sense of community is one of the most important roles the garden is meant to represent, she said.

 

However, in some cases, community gardens and urban farms do not always provide the ultimate experience of sharing of food and providing an educational experience.

 

 “Unfortunately, some gardens only serve a select group from within a neighborhood and do not reach out to others. This can be a source of tension within a neighborhood, especially one with limited resources,” said Erica Barajas, growing matters garden manager at Fair Food Matters in Kalamazoo, Mich.

 

But when combined with the right people and the right ideas, it seems as though anyone can benefit.

 

Other local community gardens in Southwest Michigan like the Tabitha Farm Urban Homestead and Community Garden are bringing community members together.

 

The Growing Matters Garden Program helps build community gardens that work.  This program is sponsored by Fair Food Matters and teaches local residents about organic farming.

 

“Urban gardens have great potential for building community by bringing people together through the process of growing plants and food,” Barajas said. “A garden can provide an educational space, as well, and it’s a great place for people to meet their neighbors and share ideas.”

 

 Fair Food Matters also hosts a weekly volunteer night during the summer that allows space for adults from the community to join at Woodward Elementary School for Technology and Research located at 606 Stuart Ave.

 

The Roots of Knowledge Community Garden at Woodward Elementary sheds new light on the way community gardens are being integrated into the Kalamazoo educational system.

 

In affiliation with Fair Food Matters, Woodward Elementary School for Technology and Research developed an on-campus garden where students interact with the environment by learning how to grow edible plants by turning the food they harvest into healthy snacks and by participating in extra-curricular activities involving garden projects.

 

 “We offer an extra-curricular activity called Club Grub that investigates the garden and issues surrounding food systems and teaches the kids recipes and harvesting techniques so they can learn to eat healthier by preparing their own snacks,” said Beth Yankee, principal at Woodward Elementary School for Technology and Research.

 

 Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College and the Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center work with the elementary school by allowing college students and community members to volunteer for the school’s activities.

 

 “The children benefit tremendously through their interaction with the community,” Yankee said. “It makes a great positive difference in their education when they can interact with the community and people who care enough to show an interest.”

 

The food harvested in the Roots of Knowledge garden is consumed by the students and served at afterschool events. The school makes sure to avoid waste by selling what is not consumed to the local farmer’s markets, Yankee said.

 

 “I think it’s a great thing for the kids and the community,” Pearson said. “School is such an important thing in a kid’s life and any direction the schools can take to promote food sovereignty and healthy living is a big step forward.”

 

 Food sovereignty and providing a healthy lifestyle for her family give Pearson the extra drive to keep the farm running when times get tough and there doesn’t seem to be enough time, she said. One hundred percent self-sufficiency was an idea she doesn’t care to obtain.

 

“That insular, self-sufficient attitude is all right, but it’s not something that I’m aspiring to. I just want to be less dependent on the system but you kind of have to work with it too,” Pearson said. “It’s really about providing that space for people and the rest will follow. If you don’t like something about the way life is going, you have to be a part of the change.”

 

More information about the Roots of Knowledge Community Garden can be found at FairFoodMatters.org.