What do you get when you mix children, green-thumbed senior citizens, and access to a community garden? Kids who can’t wait to eat fresh vegetables. In Alabama, a state recently ranked as the second most obese in the nation and home to new community gardens, these are exactly the kinds of projects we need.
The community gardens of East Brewton, Ala., are just one outgrowth of Be Our Voice, a project of the National Initiative for Children’s Healthcare Quality (NICHQ) partnering with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Association Foundation, and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Through the project, NICHQ has been training and mobilizing healthcare professionals to become advocates for local policy changes in the fight against childhood obesity. The first part of the project focused on seven states, including Alabama, and the local changes have been boundless in variety and creativity—all focused on building environments that promote healthy weight.
“We started our first community garden in September 2010,” says Amy Cooley, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program in East Brewton. “The mayor cut the ribbon, the Boy Scouts planted a tree, and some of our firefighters and EMTs planted the first seeds. It was a great start.” The 40 feet by 40 feet garden includes fall vegetables such as turnips, radishes, red cabbage, collards, and onions. And the site is maintained by volunteers throughout the community, including many seniors who mentor and teach the youngest gardeners.
“The children love the garden,” says Cooley. She recalls one 9-year-old boy in particular. “I asked him what he knew about gardening and he said, ‘Nothing, but I’m really excited.’ He didn’t know a beet from a Brussels sprout, but he wanted to learn and be involved. Kids would take home handfuls of greens saying they couldn’t wait to eat them.”
“For the children it’s been a learning experience for us and for them,” adds Dwayne Carroll from Noland Health Services, a Be Our Voice advocate in East Brewton. “Children that wouldn’t eat a carrot will eat a carrot now, because they planted it. It’s making them change their diet, because they planted their own food.”
Cooley sees the garden as a way to take advocacy one step further: the new advocates will be the kids. “I’m thinking that getting the children involved in the gardens will help them inspire other kids in the community to eat well.”
East Brewton has helped inspire us at NICHQ to continue our work in helping combat obesity in our nation. Through projects such as Be Our Voice, healthcare professionals are learning to step out of the clinic to advocate for the wellness of their communities.