Nov 6, 2013

Blooms in the Hilltop Dessert

Lessons from a little Hilltop farm

When I hear the word "Hilltop" I think of a gassy pasture that has animals grazing on a hill. This is hardly what the Hilltop community actually looks like located south of West Broad Street at the corner of Highland Avenue and Floral Avenue in a struggling part of the Columbus. I recently got to visit the Hilltop to speak at the Highland Elementary and the J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center.

Back in 2009, many community centers were being closed across Columbus due to lack of funding. These centers served as after school programs for many youth, a safe place to grow and learn and a common place for community members to go and feel safe. Columbus is a great city, but let’s face it, in every large city there is crime and poverty. In a meeting at the Hilltop Lutheran Church, a group of concerned citizens gathered to discuss what could be done to promote growth of the youth in the Hilltop community, since the community centers were no longer available for the children. Out of this meeting the dream of the Highland Youth Garden was put into action. This large garden area includes areas of irrigated crop production, raised beds where crops are planted “by color,” a high tunnel (green house), an herb garden, a butterfly garden, and a native plant area. Each provides special teaching and learning opportunities.

The majority of children in the nearby schools and in the community live in poverty. Most of the youth receive free or reduced lunches. For many, English is a second language. This area is also referred to as a food desert due to the lack of grocery stores in the community. Fresh vegetables and fruit simply are not available unless the children receive them in their school lunches or their parents or guardians have access to transportation to travel outside the neighborhood to shop in grocery stores.

In 2013, the youth planted vegetables, herbs, flowers, and six fruit trees. The crops included corn, mustard greens, beets, onions, cucumbers, potatoes, turnips, eggplant, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, a wide variety of tomatoes and peppers, and several other vegetables. Approximately 25 percent of the garden is dedicated to raising food for the local food pantry and for residents that are not able to do the physical work in the garden. The children and volunteers have delivered the produce to the pantry to share what they have grown with people in their community. Two canning classes have been offered each year to help families learn how to preserve food from the garden. With the help of Strader’s Nursery, the Highland Youth Garden also assisted the broader community by sharing over 3,000 flats of vegetables, fruit plants, herbs and flowers with other community gardens, with neighbors for their own gardens, and with youth who are participating in the garden. The garden is now recognized as one of Franklin County’s 12 Hub Gardens, each of which is a resource that is being leveraged to teach and start other gardens in the city.

I was invited to visit with many of the school students who have teachers and a principle who value a hands-on approach to gardening and food. I was more than excited to see how the teachers and staff really value this garden and allow class time for their students to participate. I have always said almost every life lesson can be learned on a farm. For these children, this is about as close to a farm as they will ever get. This outdoor garden and learning center not only teaches them about science and food but about respect, responsibility and rewards.

The children that I met had so many questions for me about food and farming. They had no idea what agriculture was and seemed very excited to meet a farmer. Kids say the darndest things! Some of my favorites were:

“I didn't know that there were girl farmers.”

“You are too pretty to be a farmer.”

“Can you drive a tractor?” 

“Where are your bib overalls?”

My take home message in a nutshell was that there are children living with very little close to our farms that have no idea where their food comes from or what agriculture is about. There are volunteers who are willing to donate countless hours for children and create gardens to help educate the youth about food and making healthy food choices. They need help from people in agriculture to share what we do on the farm and how they too are a part of the food production cycle. It was such an honor to be invited to their garden and listen and watch the children. Their eyes are so full of hope and excitement. They seemed eager to learn and content, yet they have so little. Visiting the garden for just a few hours really got me excited and charged up to go out and do great things. I think that every adult (rural or urban) can learn from these children, and their little farm on the Hilltop.

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