Portage gardens may help to fight poverty

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Portage County residents soon may be given an opportunity to fight poverty with a pack of seeds, a spade and a shovel.

A community gardens initiative is being organized in or near some low-income housing developments, and such gardens may soon be popping up in Ravenna, Kent, Brady Lake and Windham.

The Portage Association for Community Economics has obtained a $2,000 grant from the Campaign for Human Development, a funding source of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown.

Organizers of the effort say they hope to overcome obstacles such as a lack of spaces for the gardens, water, and resources to help people in city neighborhoods do something they may have never done _ grow their own food. They also are hoping residents are inspired to organize such an initiative in their own neighborhoods.

"It's a good thing on a lot of levels," said Fritz Seefeldt, manager of the Haymaker Farm Market and a member of PACE. "It really puts people in touch with their food. There's a lot of skepticism, but I know it can work."

Kent already has one community gardens program, administered by the Men's Garden Club of Kent. That garden is moving from the Kent Church of the Brethren to Beckwith's Orchards in Franklin Township.

While both programs are open to anyone who is interested, PACE would locate its gardens in or near low-income neighborhoods, encouraging residents to grow food and flowers in their community.

Tom Albanese, a member of PACE who works for Family and Community Services of Catholic Charities, said the grant would be used for supplies, seeds and toward the salary of a part-time organizer, who hasn't been hired yet because volunteers are running the effort so far.

The proposal is in the early planning stages.

Areas the committee is considering for community gardens include the Skeels, McElrath and Renaissance Place neighborhoods in Ravenna Township; the Silver Meadows area and south end of Kent; and neighborhoods in Brady Lake and Windham.

Eventually, residents would grow food to feed their families and could also sell produce at places like the Haymaker Farm Market in Kent.

"The overall goal is to make these community gardens self-sustaining," Albanese said.

But the goal goes far beyond just providing food for household use or for sale, said Kent resident Lynn Hassler, who works for the Ohio State University Extension Office in Cuyahoga County, which oversees 200 community gardens throughout the county.

"A community garden is a place where people can get together and work on something positive," Hassler said.

Cuyahoga County's community gardens vary in size, are located on vacant lots, near schools and near homeless shelters, she said. Some grow produce, while others are more "therapeutic" in nature and give people an opportunity to beautify their community. Gardeners range in age from 2 to 100, she said.

"People can look at this beautiful garden and know it is something they created together," Hassler said.

Kent City Councilman William Schultz, also a member of PACE, said such gardens bring communities together.

"It's a shared activity," he said. "People really get a positive feeling about growing plants and their own food. The closer it is to people, the more likely they are to participate."

Hassler said people in Cuyahoga County are encouraged to find plots near their homes. That makes it easier for people who lack transportation to tend to their plots, and also helps guard against vandalism and theft, she said.

Residents who are interested in establishing a community garden in their neighborhood should call Schultz at 673-8216 or Seefeldt at 678-5748.

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