Two weeks ago KMUW reported that roughly one-fourth of Wichitans live in areas with little access to fresh, affordable food. But there’s a trend growing in inner cities across the country that looks to ease that burden. Community gardens offer a way for people to cultivate fresh produce, while strengthening the bonds of their neighborhood.
Near the banks of the Arkansas River, blocks from downtown Wichita, you’ll find a tough neighborhood; broken glass and discarded furniture spill out onto the cracked, uneven streets.
You’ll also find heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, squash and sunflowers at a community garden, which sits at the corner of South Wichita and West Gilbert.
The teenagers who maintain this garden gather around a plastic tub of homemade salsa, enjoying the fruit of their sweat-soaked labor.
Lauren Scislowksi is the program director of Legacy GardenWorks, which is operated by Legacy Ministries of Wichita, a faith based organization that helps at-risk youth discover the arts and now, gardening.
“We are a youth employment program, so we basically hire young people, like high school age, from the community to give them a job, teach them more about food and where food comes from,” Scislowski says.
Five of these “young people” walk up and down the rows of two big gardens; they carry large buckets that contain the day’s harvest.
“I've been here since April 29, I'm really liking it,” says Trevor Ward, who was referred to Legacy GardenWorks after being arrested for breaking city curfew laws.
“I didn't know anything about gardening until I came here, so I'm learning a lot.”
Ward says he enjoys the responsibility of growing vegetables and providing them to others.
“I like to sell the stuff I actually grow and plant, cause I mean, you did it, it's kind of crazy,” he says. “I’ve never grown a garden, so you can sell the stuff that you actually plant to people that actually will enjoy it.”
The program is funded solely through private donors who believe in their cause—people who see the effect the garden has on local young people, and the neighborhood that envelops them.
“I think this neighborhood has been forgotten, there's not much going on here,” Scislowski explains. “Our little Dillons at Broadway and Harry just closed, so I think we're now officially a food desert, and I know from talking to neighbors that a lot of people really just don't know what to do, they'll go grab a hot dog at QuikTrip rather than go to a grocery store. We just really see our role as being a local place for local people to get what they need, foodwise.”
This is the second summer the organization has been in this neighborhood, and Scizlowski has gone all-in. She lives in a house just across the street from the garden. On Saturday mornings the group puts their produce up for sale, prices are pay-what-you-can. It’s an opportunity to educate the people around them.
“I wouldn't say it's going all the way to ‘this is my main food source’ by any means, It's more like, ‘Oh this is cool, I’m going to make something great with these fresh tomatoes.’ You know?”
Scislowski says she’d like to keep expanding, perhaps to the point of being able to give a box of produce to a family each week. She also hopes to build an outdoor kitchen where neighbors can visit, share a meal, and pick up some gardening tips.
The Fairmount Garden
Across town, Susan Schoket is digging up a chunk of Bermuda grass, which lines a small patch of sweet potatoes at Fairmount Garden.
It sits adjacent to Fairmount United Church of Christ, near the campus of Wichita State University. Schoket provides her green thumb to a number of community gardens in Wichita, which she says started sprouting up around 2007.
“There weren't many [community gardens] around town, I knew we needed more producers,” Schoket says. “If you don't have any money, going to the farmers market is just out of the question. We needed to do this for ourselves, it's a self-sufficiency thing.”
Schoket says that the first step in teaching someone how to garden is to tell them that it’s possible, whether you have an empty backyard or an empty flowerpot.
“It doesn’t take much to put an eggplant in your flower bed, you know?” Schoket says. “Grow flowers with your food and food with your flowers—eggplants are gorgeous, and my plants are dripping with them this year.”
Darryl Carrington is the main caretaker of Fairmount Garden. He knows this area well, having initially served here through AmeriCorps.
“The Fairmount neighborhood has had some challenges in the past,” Carrington recounts. “So, we came in and we're coming up with ideas we could rally around, common denominators. We tried sports in the park, and we tried music. Then we decided, everyone needs to eat, so let's develop a community garden.”
Many parishioners from Fairmount United Church of Christ volunteer their time to maintain the garden, which is slowly taking over a large swathe of a grassy playground.
“At first, the church responded with, ‘What about a fence? Weren’t you going to fence it?’ And now they're saying, ‘Let's tear down the fences and expand the garden,’” Carrington says. “It's a pretty awesome evolution.”
In a space about 30 feet by 30 feet, Carrington grows many garden mainstays like tomatoes, beans and peppers. There are massive sunflowers--at least 14 feet high. He says he received them from an Iraq War veteran he met.
Carrington also grows more eccentric produce, most of which the kids in the area have never seen.
“One year we handed out honeydew melons, and we told these kids to take this home, put them in a paper bag and in a couple days, cut it and open it and enjoy it, Carrington says. “I saw the kid later and asked, ‘how was the honeydew melon?’ And she said, ‘We had to throw it away, it was green!’ So, she had no clue--it's a great learning opportunity.”
Right now the garden is first come, first serve, and it’s supported only by its volunteers. Carrington says neighbors provide water, compost and seeds, and in return, he encourages them to stop by and pick what they need. He’s always open for future evolution.
“Eventually it will take over this playground and we'll have a section to distribute,” he says. “We hope to can some of our food, dry some of it, and even package some of the seeds so we can distribute them.”
There’s currently a list of over 25 community gardens throughout Wichita. For those involved, it’s not just a hobby, it’s a way to nourish themselves and the people around them.
To learn how to start a neighborhood garden in your area, click here.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur