Project Description: The 4-H Urban Gardens program has a community garden site in the city of Middletown, N.Y. The site is maintained by youth from a runaway and a homeless youth shelter. Some of the youth are court adjudicated. Our garden is a collaborative effort of several organizations and individuals.
Issue/Need: Low and fixed income residents often have to choose between eating healthy or doing without a nutritious meal. When residents make too little money or don’t earn a living wage, proper nutrition can become a low priority. Improper nutritional guidance from parents and other caregivers to dependent children can often lead to childhood obesity. This condition can affect adolescent health negatively, carry over into adulthood, and prompt a myriad of health-related issues such as: high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. The garden program provides fresh produce to the Guild of St. Margaret’s Soup Kitchen in Middletown to meet the nutritional needs of area residents served by the soup kitchen.
CCE Response: This past spring, the program coordinator met with staff from Helping Others Needing Our Resources / Emergency Housing Group (HONOR EHG) to discuss implementing the Choose Health Ambassador (CHA) program for families residing in the shelter with children in grades 3 to 5. CHA would provide up to 6 lessons on nutrition and active games for families over the summer months. A support activity would be available for participants and if interested they could also help out in the garden. Officials from the shelter agreed to recruit program participants.
In August HONOR EHG participated in an assessment and residents provided information on their level of access to nutritious food and level of physical activity. Several positive factors now influence their decision-making.
In addition to this outreach, the program coordinator also secured the services of three organizations that provided volunteers for the community garden during the gardening season. Volunteers from Middletown Residential Center, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Community Service Unit and the Bellvale Community provided labor for garden site expansion and preparation, along with the youth from the shelter.
The initial target audiences for the Choose Health Ambassador workshops were youth in day camps. After considerable thought, the target audience transitioned to youth in Vacation Bible Schools (VBS). The rationale behind this decision was to target an audience that would already be in a learning mode.
In early July, four teens from the County Summer Youth Employment Program completed 12 hours of training as Choose Health Ambassadors. These teens were able to co-facilitate the nutrition education program with CCE educators.
From May to September, youth from the shelter maintained the garden, created outdoor works of art for display, participated in Choose Health Nutrition programming, and harvested produce for the St. Margaret’s Soup Kitchen.
The Challenges: Despite having additional support in the form of donated materials, a proven nutrition program, and grant support; the gardening season was extremely challenging this year.
- Challenge #1 – Recruitment of families from HONOR EHG was unsuccessful. The Director of Shelters recruited for only a single day, made attendance at the meeting mandatory for families on the family unit, and went ahead with recruitment despite the fact that none of the families had children in the age range the curriculum is designed for, (all were pre-school children).
- Response to the challenge - We continued with outreach to the VBS Directors after confirming that there was no suitable audience at HONOR EHG.
- Challenge #2 – Recruitment at the VBS was unsuccessful. Outreach was made to 11 existing Vacation Bible Schools, the Salvation Army, and the local library within a 15 mile radius. Most expressed a sincere interest in our program offering but all of these groups had already scheduled and planned out their programs. They could not use our program as an addition to theirs at such a late date. Several other VBS programs ran at night when our Choose Health Ambassadors would not be able to co-facilitate. Our recruitment was simply too late.
- Response to the challenge – We tried to ensure that our CHA’s would still have a meaningful summer work experience. Our trained Choose Health Ambassadors averaged 2 hours per day/ 3 days per week assisting in the garden and split the rest of their time assisting our educators at the Orange County Fair, or completing office tasks and research projects. (i.e. garden art projects, science and engineering career searches, and more). They also practiced their presentation skills by doing cooking demonstrations for staff. CHA’s did not co-facilitate the nutrition program for teens at the youth shelter as their skill level was better suited for the younger (original target audience.)
- Challenge #3 – Unwanted pests in the form of woodchucks and possums wreaked havoc on approximately 1/3 of the produce that was growing.
- Response to the challenge – A daily battle was waged in order to protect the produce from pests.
- Challenge #4 - Unfavorable weather conditions delivered both extreme heat and extreme moisture at times inconsistent with the normal weather patterns. These conditions severely limited the amount of fresh produce generated by the garden. Gardeners and farmers throughout the region all experienced a greatly diminished harvest as a result. The final blow literally came in the form of hurricane Irene, and the tropical storm which followed a week later. 80% of the remaining produce was destroyed as a result.
- Response to the Challenge – Surrender, harvest what remains, donate it to the soup kitchen, and close up the garden earlier than normal.
Program Successes: Despite the challenges encountered, there were some successes worth noting.
- The garden site doubled in area as a result of the volunteer participation from the Sheriff’s Community Service Unit.
- The Choose Health Ambassadors had a diversified, first-time work experience.
- The CHA’s were able to adapt their presentation
- HONOR EHG was able to assess the agency’s availability of healthy choices for residents of the shelter along with the availability of physical activity.
- The Fresh Start Café catering program of another social service agency which was recently housed in their building now provides greater nutritional choices for residents on a daily basis.
- Four of the six nutrition lessons were provided to teens residing at the youth shelter by CCE educators.
- Teens from the youth shelter and CHA’s participated in a field trip to Freedom Hill Farm to learn about food security, sustainable agriculture, and explored how to make good nutritional and life choices.
Lessons Learned and Other Outcomes:
- We are very well positioned to engage youth in VBS programs in a timely manner next year. Contacts have been maintained and VBS Directors will be invited to check out our fall programs that are conducted by a different set of CHA’s with CCE educators.
- The CHA’s from the summer program have been invited to participate in the fall program. Two of the four have indicated that they will return.
- In August, a new Director of Shelters came aboard and so we will continue to nurture that relationship and expect better outcomes for the upcoming gardening season.
- We will acquire additional Have-a-Heart traps and get additional large stones for rock borders going into the next season to provide better pest control.