Community blossoms with nonprofit garden

Heart of Texas Garden Coalition works to not only beautify the community, but provide a food source and learning tool for people in the community as well.
Courtesy Photo

By Bonnie Berger

In an age when supermarkets overpower local growers in the race to supply consumers with affordable produce, it seems that gardening has been neglected.

Recognizing the need for sustainable and affordable produce, the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition works to bring maintainable gardens to neighborhoods where supermarkets are few and far between.

“We try to start gardens at churches and schools that are in neighborhoods where traditional access to food isn’t as available,” said Bethel Erickson, Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition Americorps Vista director. “In North and East Waco, there really aren’t many supermarkets, so we’re providing another method for people to grow their own food.”

Sprouting in 2005 through mutual collaborations among various community members and groups like the World Hunger Relief Farm and Caritas, Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition takes a holistic approach to planting a community garden.

“We try to work with people who are interested so we just don’t go into communities that don’t want us,” Erickson said. “When we plant a garden, we set up community gardening workshops to educate people on how to grow their own produce, as well as offer cooking demonstrations.”

Drawing the attention of the community, local churches, schools, companies and nonprofits are getting involved.

“Churches will use the produce they grow in food pantries, in Caritas and cooking endeavors,” Erickson said. “It’s a good method of ministry for them to be able to give back.”

Uniting members of the community from all walks of life, the coalition provides common ground on which people can meet to reinvest in their communities.

“It’s truly a coalition,” Erickson said. “We’re not just gardeners; we’re health educators and teachers and pastors, so it’s a good variety of people who are just interested in access to healthy food.”

Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition utilizes community events centered on the gardens in order to further education and energize the neighborhood.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service is one such event, where kids, parents and members of the community have the opportunity to plant new gardens, beautify the city and partake in nutritious home-grown foods.

In January, Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition partnered with Campus Kitchens Project at Baylor and numerous community organizations to create the Baylor Community Garden, located at Ninth Street and Bagby Avenue. Organizers expect the garden to improve children’s nutrition, as well as provide Baylor students with a useful teaching tool.

“This is one of the university’s most progressive moves toward giving all areas of the Baylor campus an opportunity to engage each other and build community in a very substantial way,” said Amanda Allen, project manager with the Interdisciplinary Poverty Initiative at Baylor, in a January press release.

Despite the fun and celebrations, the gardens require a substantial amount of work in order to stay healthy and prosperous.

“Having people stay interested in the garden after those initial garden events is hard,” Erickson said. “That’s just the reality of it. Once it hits July, it’s hot outside and people aren’t as interested in putting forth all the hard work.”

Yet creativity and a dedicated group of community workers and volunteers continue to bear fruit in each neighborhood, despite a limited budget and inhospitable summer heat.

“Having little to no money has caused us to be more creative with the things we use and find around town,” Erickson said. “We’re building compost bins out of recycled materials and trellising peas on old mattress springs.”

The creativity seeps into every aspect of the organization, as staff and volunteers turn the gardening process into an art form.

“Gardening and art are very similar processes because both let you start something and you have to wait and work with it and cultivate it until its finished,” said Grace Ladd, Waco Arts Initiative director and former Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition board of directors secretary.

The community gardens also cultivate an appreciation for getting messy, as they encourage kids to get off the couch and spend time in the dirt.

“They understand that it didn’t just come from the ground but it’s actual food,” Erickson said. “The strides are great. … They’re much more likely to get their tennis shoes dirty.”