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In the green: Community gardens take root with nursing staff and students

Monday October 22, 2012
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Throughout the country, nurses are “greening” their nursing schools and healthcare facilities and advocating for policies that protect the environment and increase access to healthy foods. But knowing where to begin could be daunting.

Kathleen Thimsen, RN, MSN, WOCN, FNS, instructor at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Nursing and director of its Community Nursing Center, knows where to start. Thimsen, who is involved with wellness and disease prevention in the urban setting, offers this advice: “Go to the people in the community.”

In 2009, the SIUE School of Nursing launched a public health program, Creating Healthy Nutrition and Access in the Inner City with Community Gardening, as part of the school’s “green” curriculum. “Each semester, approximately 100 nursing students rotate into public-health classes and are required to earn service learning hours,” Thimsen said. “During their public health rotation, the undergrad students conduct a community assessment and identify barriers to healthy nutrition, behavior and lifestyle.”

Thimsen said gardens give communities access to fresh produce and increase physical activity and socialization. They also increase intergenerational interactions and provide children with education about gardening. “The residents of East St. Louis live in a ‘food desert,’” she said, which means a substantial number of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. “Residents use convenience stores, gas stations and liquor stores as the main source of food,” she said.

Engagement creates sustainability

“To begin the project, the students and the residents created a collaborative plan and agreed on a time line for implementation,” said Thimsen, who added that 200 nursing students began the cleanup by engaging the community to participate. “Engaging residents is a slow process, but is a vital and critical aspect of the project,” said Thimsen.

In addition, Thimsen said, the students found an area they turned into garden beds and a demonstration garden, and a long-standing, uninhabited greenhouse was located in East St. Louis during a service learning day. “The greenhouse was slowly renovated and has served as the incubator for early spring planting and subsequent transplanting or distribution for residents who want to start their own garden,” she said.

According to Thimsen, the multifaceted community garden program unites county and local health departments, city and park administration, housing developments, faith-based organizations, health districts, local media outlets, schools and organizations to create gardens and produce healthy foods. “The East Side Health District and other community drivers for gardening came together and formed a not-for-profit to create a central and independent hub for creating access to fresh food,” Thimsen said.

Growing inspiration and a healthier future

Today, the vegetables, herbs and flowers are thriving in East St. Louis and providing food sources and plants for residents to start their own gardens.

According to Thimsen, during 2011 more than 300 pounds of produce was harvested and distributed to residents. Seeds, seedlings and hands-on gardening demonstrations reached more than 300 residents. Currently there are three sustainable school gardens, 17 neighborhood gardens and 11 private gardens.

The community garden project also is cultivating a healthier future through a summer camp for children and teens planned for 2013. “This environmental program will be a link to public safety and health along with recycling and promoting empowerment through social justice,” Thimsen said.

Students perform annual evaluations of goal achievements for the project, reassess the goals and set benchmarks for the coming year. “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished by people coming together despite limited resources,” Thimsen said. “Equal to that is the enormous change in people’s lives that have been involved with the movement. It’s truly inspiring.”

Small area, big harvest

MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore was recognized for its community garden in 2011 when the facility was awarded the Maryland Hospitals for Healthy Initiative Trailblazer Awards in Nursing Leadership and Environmental Health Visionary.

One of only two Baltimore hospitals with a community garden, MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital built an employee/community vegetable and herb garden on its campus with the leadership of Daisy Fischer, RN, MSN, CPAN, and the Green Team which includes six other nurses. “For nurses, we are awarding points on the clinical ladder for participation on the Green Team,” Fischer said.

Fischer, who grew up with a backyard vegetable garden, said the greatest joy of planting the garden has been harvesting the first crop and donating a portion of it to a local food bank. “The amount of vegetables produced from the relatively small area of land was a huge surprise,” she said. “We grew cabbage, kale, collards, lettuce and broccoli. The garden is located in an area seen by many employees as they enter the hospital, which has helped promote it.”

The members of the Green Team organized an event to celebrate the success of the first crop, Fischer said. “We offered fresh broccoli or cabbage to employees who were interested in joining the Green Team, which helped get enough volunteers to maintain the garden,” she added. “We now have a master gardener who organizes the schedule for gardening tasks.”

Fresh and affordable

The community garden concept is not a recent phenomenon. According to the book “City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America,” by Laura Lawson, the first community gardens were started in the 1890s. “There were three types of programs: the vacant lot cultivation association, the children’s school garden and the civic garden campaign,” said Beth Urban, executive director, American Community Garden Association, a nonprofit membership organization based in Columbus, Ohio, that supports community greening in urban and rural communities.

Community gardens are started for several reasons, Urban said. “The interest in community gardens generally increases when the economy is struggling,” she said. “People are looking for ways to reduce food budgets and want to grow their own food. We are also seeing an increasing trend in consumer awareness and interest in locally grown, fresh and affordable food.”

According to Urban, there are about 25,000 community gardens in the U.S. and Canada. “Whether you’re working with friends or a local organization, there are many things you’ll want to consider before digging the first hole,” she said.

Urban recommends the ACGA website at Communitygarden.org for details on how to start a community garden, including forming a planning committee, choosing a site, seeking sponsorships and deciding what will be grown in the garden. “We will continue to see an increase in the development of community gardens over the next five to 10 years,” Urban said. “We will also see an increase in the number of programs targeting youth and offering job training skills.”

Valuing community connections is not a new phenomenon, either, Thimsen said. “In the early years, people worked collectively for the betterment of their community,” she said. “We are now we working our way back to valuing community connections. Gardening, socialization and learning health promotion activities all increase the message about health and reduction of chronic diseases.”

There are so many opportunities for nurses with community gardening, and so much serendipity within the program, she added.


Amy Gallagher is a freelance writer. Post a comment below or email specialty@nurse.com.