Delaware Cooperative Extension works to bring healthy food to urban areas

Delaware Cooperative Extension works to bring healthy food to urban areasWith the help of Delaware Cooperative Extension, urban farms and gardens are popping up all over the First State, providing a much-needed healthy food source and beautifying areas that otherwise wouldn’t have access to fresh vegetables or flowers.

Many of these gardens rely on the expertise of Cooperative Extension agents and the services extension provides, such as soil testing, plant pest identification and disease diagnostics.

One that has been particularly well served by extension is the Planting Hope Urban Farm located on North DuPont Highway in New Castle and is a partnership between the Delaware Department of Agriculture and Health and Social Services.

Gail Hermenau, the urban farm manager for Planting Hope, said the farm supports a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that recently expanded to include families and children from the Terry Psychiatric Center, a campus market as well as a community garden space where they work with clients from the Delaware Psychiatric Center and the Division for the Visually Impaired.

The farm is in part funded by a three-year specialty crop block grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Hermenau said the children from the psychiatric center do different types of activities and plantings at the farm.

“They have two raised beds they use to plant a variety of vegetables, and they use that space to learn about plant life cycle and all the sustainable farming practices that happen on the farm. Then we harvest that material, and I usually cook something up for them and have a tasting,” said Hermenau.

Cooperative Extension is partnering with the farm to provide nutritional education in the class room for the students from December to April. Over the summer, they meet with Hermenau on the farm where she delivers a CSA share, one per household, to the Terry Psychiatric Center that’s distributed among resident children and children who are part of the day program.

Extending knowledge

Hermenau said she was always fascinated by gardening, but her interest and knowledge base took off when in 2004 she trained to become a volunteer educator in Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener program, and later trained to become Master Composter and Master Food Educators.

Hermenau said getting involved with Cooperative Extension was the “best thing I ever did. Cooperative Extension is a wonderful organization. It’s made a tremendous difference in my life personally and professionally.”

Having been trained as a Master Gardener with a specialty in composting and vegetable gardening, Hermenau installed the original four raised beds, borders and compost site at the demonstration garden located in the back of the New Castle County Cooperative Extension building located on Wyoming Road.

Her role as a Master Gardener now includes working in the areas of community gardening and urban agriculture. It was in this role that she attended the Joint Council of Extension Professionals conference with Michelle Rodgers, associate dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of UD Cooperative Extension, Maria Pippidis, New Castle County director and extension educator for family and consumer sciences, Nancy Bell, a Master Gardener, and Karen Sommers, a Master Food Educator.

The last day of the conference included a trip to Capitol Hill. At that time, Hermenau and the other Delaware extension professionals were able to talk about the low cost and free services extension provides to the Delaware community and invite Delaware Sen. Tom Carper to visit the urban farms and gardens in Wilmington.

Senatorial tour

Carper toured urban gardens and farms in Wilmington on May 30, including the E.D. Robinson 12th and Brandywine Farm and the South Bridge Community Garden, which Hermenau said was started by Randi Novakoff and a variety of partners including extension which was instrumental in helping get off the ground.

“One of the first things that the Southbridge community did was contact extension, and that’s what a lot of people do. They contact extension staff, in this case Carrie Murphy, [extension agent and the lawn and garden program leader], and explain ‘this is what I need to do, how do I go about doing this and can you help me?’ Carrie then provides assistance and makes connections to the appropriate experts including master gardeners and master food educators,” said Hermenau.

Carper was also able to tour Planting Hope where he had the opportunity to speak with community garden members, learn about how the garden helps a variety of people including those in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and clients from the division of the visually impaired, and how the garden members use various extension services throughout the year in a variety of ways.

While each urban community garden and farm is unique, Hermenau said the goal is always the same: for community gardens to be led by members of the community.

“Extension is always there as a resource, but we found that community ownership of the garden is really necessary to make it successful,” said Hermenau. “They need to make it their own. They come to us for resources, but we don’t go to them and tell them ‘this is what you should be doing and this is how you should be doing it.’ We tell them, ‘We’re here and these are the resources we have, how can we help you?’ That’s our approach.”

Ultimately, these urban farms and community gardens serve many purposes for the communities in which they are installed, not the least of which is providing fresh vegetables to communities in need.

“Urban gardening and farming is really important. When you think about the different communities with limited access to fresh vegetables, many of the members of that community also have limited access to transportation so any of these resources they can take advantage of make a big difference,” said Hermenau. “The areas that they work in, they were abandoned lots and so it improves and beautifies their neighborhood. It makes a difference in changing the neighborhood, and it makes the community come alive.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Evan Krape

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