Newaygo Garden Project Sows Excitement, Reaps Healthy Rewards

The question seemed simple enough: “Where does a tomato come from?” But the children’s replies were eye opening.

“WalMart!” one child shouted excitedly. Most of the other children gathered at the Newaygo County Great Start Parent Coalition meeting in 2013 didn’t know the answer.

“We live in a farming community and many of these kids didn’t even know what a tomato was or where it came from,” said Karen Clark, Newaygo County Great Start Collaborative Coordinator. “We decided to change that.”

Growing a Community Garden

The Newaygo County Great Start Gardens have widespread support, including:

White Cloud Rotary Club - paid for nine garden plots

Fremont Rotary Club - paid for eight raised bed plots

Newaygo County RESA - donated garden space

Nestle Nutrition - donated space for two large gardens, put in a water supply and donated several garden tool and supplies

State Rep. Jon Bumstead - donated a wheelbarrow

State Sen. Geoff Hansen - donated a garden cart and a dump truck of compost

District Health Department #10 - purchased vegetables and garden supplies and taught a gardening 101 class to parents

Mast Quarter Horses & Greenhouse - donated vegetables

Fairview Floral - donated planting trays for growing seedlings

Newaygo County Prevention of Child Abuse summer camp teens - helped with weeding

Several individuals also donated seeds, gardening supplies or money.

With a lot of community support, the Collaborative and Parent Coalition launched the Great Start Gardens project last year. The goal was to  tackle childhood obesity by getting families growing together. Like many communities, childhood obesity is a concern here. According to 2012 data from the local school district,  Body Mass Index data for Newaygo County children ages 6 to 12 shows 40.7 percent of students were reported to be at-risk or obese..

The Great Start Collaborative selected reducing childhood obesity as a goal in its strategic plan. The Parent Coalition, under the leadership of Christina Yuhasz, came up with the gardens idea.

“All the research shows that kids who grow their own vegetables are more likely to try it and like it and develop a habit of eating fruits and vegetables,” Clark said. “We wanted to give them ownership in the whole process.”

The project launched last year with a $250 budget. Planting began in April 2013 when 50 families gathered at the monthly Parent Coalition meeting. They planted seeds donated or purchased on sale by the coalition (20 packs for $1) into empty flats provided by a local greenhouse. Every family planted a flat or two of vegetables then took them home to water and care for them. When they returned in June to transfer them to the garden plots, Clark said she expected about half the plants back, the rest she assumed would become victims of over or under watering.

“But they all came back thriving,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it, it was amazing. The kids loved it so much that they watered their plants and took care of them. It was a really cool process.”

Families returned throughout the summer to weed, water and care for the gardens. The result: 1,500 pounds of produce from four plots averaging 24 feet by 24 feet each in Fremont and White Cloud.

Much like the plants, the garden project has thrived and grown in its second year with more than 120 people helping to care for 20 garden plots in Newaygo, White Cloud and Fremont.

“We went from approximately 2,400 square feet of garden space to 12,000 square feet,” Clark said. “We will literally get tons of produce this year.”

The coalition also has collaborated with the Great Start To Quality Western Resource Center to help 10 child care providers start their own gardens. The coalition supplied the materials, training and other support needed for providers to work with the children in their care and teach them healthy eating habits.

More than 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables were planted this year, including cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkins, sunflowers, Brussels sprouts, okra, collard greens, several varieties of tomatoes, and purple, green and yellow beans.

Families are encouraged to take as much produce as they can eat or share. Last year, families were modest in their selections so a lot of produce was donated to local food pantries.

This year, the Parent Coalition is connecting with experts from Michigan State University’s extension service to teach parents about canning and preserving so they can stock up for the winter and reduce any waste. Next year, Clark said, the coalition hopes to develop a Great Start cookbook for the families with recipes using the fresh fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens.

Jen Prewitt’s sons Liem, 10, and Killian, 8, have always been pretty healthy eaters but participating in the garden project the past two years has increased the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat because they want to eat what they grow, she said.

“My boys will walk around eating handfuls of raw greens beans or cucumbers after school,” Prewitt said. “They love the garden and remind me every Tuesday that it’s gardening day. The pride and satisfaction is much higher than if I bought vegetables at the store. They want to eat it all because they grew. Even if they don’t like the vegetable they are at least trying it all.”

The project also has given the Fremont mom and long-time Parent Coalition member, confidence in her gardening abilities.

“Gardening can be overwhelming for people who’ve never done it, but this made it so easy to be part of a larger garden,” she said. “It’s not as scary as I thought and I even learned how to freeze fresh vegetables so I now have a freezer full of vegetables to feed my family this winter.”  

Clark credits the garden project’s success to three main factors: its leadership under the Parent Coalition, enthusiastic support of parents and children, and widespread community support. (see inset) With so much support, the Coalition spent only $975 on the gardens this year, Clark said.

It’s a small investment for what already has reaped big rewards. It will be some time before data can show an impact on BMI, but she said families report that kids are eating the produce harvested and the kids beg their parents to take them to the gardens each week.

Clark has a clear view of the impact from her office window overlooking a garden at the local Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) housing a child care program.

“Every morning during outside time the kids run to the gardens to check the vegetables. They love to grab the produce and start eating it right away. We don’t use pesticides or any chemicals, so the kids just wash off the dirt and eat it right there,” she said. “We know that these gardens are going to help families learn life-long skills that will impact our community for many years to come. “