PARIS, Mo. — Healthy communities grow in bountiful gardens.
A partnership between University of Missouri Extension and groups in the Mark Twain Lake area is teaching people in Monroe County to grow and use fresh produce.
The idea came about when MU Extension and Faith Walk Ministry worked to put USDA Farm to Family food boxes into the homes of Monroe Countians during COVID-19. The boxes contained fresh produce and dairy products that farmers could not sell when restaurants and schools closed during the pandemic.
The Monroe City Food Pantry gave away boxes at its site, and MU Extension nutrition and health education specialist Carrie Elsen worked with the food pantry to get boxes to families in Paris and other area towns. Each week, county extension council members, county commissioners and others transported boxes for distribution by extension professionals, North East Community Action Coalition staff and Faith Walk Ministry volunteers. They rallied to pass out boxes even when the county’s COVID numbers rose and temperatures dropped to 20 below zero.
During these efforts, MU Extension professionals talked with Faith Walk Ministry employees and volunteers about joining forces to help Monroe Countians grow their own groceries.
The Missouri Hunger Atlas reported that more than 1,100 of the county’s 8,612 residents lived below the poverty level and a quarter of the population was eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, based on 2017 data.
The undertaking seemed to fit in with Faith Walk’s community outreach efforts to nourish the soul and the body, and MU Extension had the resources – nutritionists, agronomists and horticulturists, says Mya McClain, principal of Faith Walk Academy, a private school operated by Faith Walk Ministry that serves pre-K through 12th grade students.
Faith Walk Academy students participate in service-learning projects such as a community garden. “I love that we can shift our curriculum to do hands-on learning,” says McClain.
Faith Walk officials offered land at the school for an in-ground garden and asked MU Extension specialists to teach their faculty and students how and why to garden. A second raised garden site sits at the MU Extension lot in downtown Paris. It offers accessibility for all ages and abilities.
When others in the community heard about the project, they stepped in to help. Retired Monroe County Sheriff David Hoffman plowed gardens. MU Extension Master Naturalist Bob Kendrick and MU Extension Master Gardener Pam Whiston, both of Monroe City, offered resources.
Larry Roberts, state coordinator of MU Extension’s Eating From the Garden program, brought seeds donated by Orscheln Home & Farm. MU Extension agronomist Dhruba Dhakal did a soil test and will provide guidance on nutrient management, diseases and pest management.
MU Extension nutrition program associate Sarah Geist and 4-H youth program associate Kathy Hasekamp will continue efforts by teaching Faith Walk students and others about the value of healthy eating.
Hasekamp is part of the Student Nutrition Advisory Council program, a free 4-H club that provides nutrition education to youths and families, including underserved youths.
Elsen says their evidence-based educational efforts will help students learn more about food, nutrition and health, leading to better eating habits and fewer chronic health conditions. Speakers from partner agencies will provide gardening and nutrition education.
“MU Extension is leading the community gardening project because it engages the community in healthy eating and physical activity and focuses on community activity such as nutrition education, food distribution and even taste tests,” Elsen says. “Gardening projects can increase community capacity to meet the produce needs of individuals or organizations. They also increase socialization and cooperation among neighbors.”
— Linda Geist, University of Missouri Extension
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