Virginia SNAP-Ed, as part of Virginia Cooperative Extension, played a central role in establishing 3 community gardens in central Virginia. The gardens came to life through the efforts of a coalition with the Page Alliance for Community Action (PACA). The 3 gardens now serve youth, neighborhood residents, and health clinic patients.
In 2021, after participating in the PACA coalition for about a year a SNAP-Ed Extension Agent was approached by Valley Health, a non-profit health system, with funding to create community gardens. The planning committee recruited Master Gardeners to join. Eventually, they gained the capacity and experience to apply for additional grants to support and maintain the gardens.
The committee surveyed community members to determine what they wanted to grow in the gardens’ shared plots, and how they wanted to grow the food. It was decided, for example, that the gardens would be pesticide-free. The garden would also be open and free to anyone from the surrounding community who was willing to work in the gardens in exchange for produce.
PSE and direct education interventions included:
- Training volunteers to teach youth how to garden and harvest produce using the Growing Healthy Habits and Learn, Grow, Eat, Go curricula. They also received training on how to run the tent when produce was picked up.
- Assisting with marketing the garden to SNAP-Ed audiences.
- Obtaining a PSE mini-grant to support programs at the garden, such as gardening and nutrition education for youth and adults.
- Linking the garden to partners who provide programs to SNAP-Ed eligible audiences, such as the local library who provides youth reading events. Librarians can read books on gardening aloud and use the garden as a summer feeding site for local youth.
A number of lessons were learned from this partnership on how to build successful community gardens:
- Choose locations that are easily accessible. The first garden was built next to a mobile home community. The second garden was built at the Valley Health Page Memorial Hospital in Luray. The third garden was built at the Family Medicine clinic.
- Add signage explaining how to become involved in the garden, its hours, and contact information.
- Be prepared for a lot of trial and error. Gardens can be unpredictable with weeds, pests, and weather. Plan to be flexible.
- Gardens require a lot of upkeep. Consider participant workdays as well as recruiting help from volunteers from groups like local nonprofits, businesses, and universities. The community gardens in Page county have been supported by volunteers from United Way Day of Caring, local banks, and leadership groups from James Madison University.
- Don’t do it all on your own. Network with other community service organizations, civic organizations, and leadership organizations, before developing a garden. Always work to include neighbors who live near the garden.
- There are a lot of different methods of gardening. Be prepared for many different points of view, including strong opinions on using pesticides.
- Offer tastings of “new” foods, i.e. foods that are grown in the garden but may be unfamiliar to some of the participants. Nutrition education and cooking demonstrations using SNAP-Ed recipes and featuring garden produce were provided to garden participants.
- Focus on outreach. When hosting events at the garden, it is very important to get the information out through a variety of channels. In rural communities, such as Page County, posting events in the newspaper is essential for success. Communicate in ways that match your community preferences. Include a way people can contact you prior to the event with questions.