Feeding the Community, One Garden at a Time

Ingrid Kirst
Community CROPS
Executive Director 

Growing your own food is a political statement. It lets you be independent. It lets you grow food organically. It lets you buy less from major corporations and the industrial agricultural system. Yet, community gardens are one program that people from all across the political spectrum can agree on—they provide the resources so people can help themselves. Rather than a handout, a community garden plot allows a family to grow some of their own food. They can then choose to share this food with other friends and families, spreading the wealth and nutrition.

For the last eight years, Community CROPS has been connecting people through growing food. We are a Lincoln-based non-profit organization that helps people work together to grow healthy food and live sustainably. Since 2003, Community CROPS has served the Lincoln area with a network of community gardens, where families can grow food for themselves. Beginning in 2005, the “Growing Farmers Training Program” has provided education and land access to limited-resource farmers.

In the past year, 180 families gardened in CROPS garden plots, growing 23,300 pounds of food. Community CROPS gardeners reflect the broad demographics of Lincoln and come from Sudan, Iraq, Bosnia, Burma, Mexico, United States and other countries. Many gardeners grow food native of their home country for their friends and family while developing new friendships and skills. Gardening not only provides a means for fresh, nutritious foods, it allows for physical activity and mental relaxation. For many of the immigrants and refugees, gardening also provides a sense of connection and feeling of home in a strange land.

“What makes you think so much about home is the food,” Caroline Azoh, a CROPS community gardener originally from Cameroon, says. “It makes you comfortable. I am like I am at home.” Caroline takes care of the family garden while also working at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. Her garden plot usually includes tomatoes, cucumbers, collard greens, onions, celery, okra and lots of basil—as well as huckleberries, a familiar taste from Cameroon. Caroline feeds her family on the garden’s bounty year-round, storing her harvest in the freezer for the long winter months. “Even before the end of winter,” she says, “I marked my plot and I put up the seeds.” Besides the joy of producing familiar foods to feed her family, Caroline also gains a sense of community spirit with her fellow gardeners. “When you go to the garden, you get to know new people, you see what other people eat in other parts of the world… and sometimes you also learn how other people do their planting and harvesting,” Caroline says. “You learn new things every day. “So it’s good—it’s like a family.” And that’s a new experience for her. “Back in Africa, I never thought of it—that you could have a plot where you could do gardening,” Caroline says. “In cities it is hard to have a plot behind your house, because everywhere is house, house, house, business. I’m so happy they have given permission for the land, so that people can actually produce natural, homegrown vegetables that can feed the family… not processed foods.” Caroline’s gratitude makes her an ardent cheerleader for Community CROPS. “They should keep up the good work,” she says. “If something is good, it should be encouraged and supported to continue.”

In addition to the community gardens, the Growing Farmers Program at CROPS provides education and land access to limited-resource farmers. Since 2005, dozens of families have participated in the program. The 48-hour “Winter Workshop Series”—spread over nine Saturdays—is taught by local farmers, extension agents and other experts, and covers the basics of starting a small-scale vegetable farm business. The new farmers then either continue on to farm at the CROPS training farm, “Sunset Community Farm,” or grow on their own land.

“Other jobs don’t allow you to get fresh air, see butterflies, or hear the birds sing. Organic farming is important to me because it contributes to strong health, helps you to live longer and healthier and saves money spent on doctors and hospitals,” said Memphis, a third-year CROPS farmer from Togo. This project enhances quality of life for beginning farmers who desire the farm lifestyle for themselves and their families. The opportunity to teach their children about their agricultural roots is highly valued. With a growing emphasis on local food, quality of life is enhanced for the whole community through greater availability of fresh, seasonal food and the opportunity to know the farmers producing it.

Produce from Sunset Community Farm is sold at local farmers’ markets, grocery stores and restaurants. A significant portion of the produce is also sold directly to local families through the Community CROPS CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), in which members pay in advance for a share in the harvest from the farm. From the end of May through mid-October, they pick up their box packed full of freshly harvested, naturally grown vegetables. CSA members love experiencing the best of Nebraska produce and learning how to cook new vegetables, while supporting beginning, limited-resource farmers at the same time.

In addition to the community gardens and Growing Farmers programs, Community CROPS offers a wide range of gardening, cooking and environmental classes. Visit our website at www.communitycrops.org or call the office at 402-474-9802 for more information on the classes, to volunteer, to sign up for a garden plot or to join the Growing Farmers program.

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