As Ronda Clark works to expand gardening in southeastern Ohio, she is thinking big.
“I want to break people of this western diet that is killing us: fast-food joints, high-fructose corn syrup, this whole culture that we have developed,” she said.
And the best way she has found to do that is through gardening — one plot at a time. Ronda is the executive director of a nonprofit called Community Food Initiatives in Athens.
“Our mission is to help people be self-sufficient in their food production,” Ronda said. “We provide gardens and tools. We teach them how to plant and harvest and amend the soil; how to cook and how to preserve the harvest. We teach them how to compost. Anything that goes with gardening, we do.”
For her tireless work to expand gardening and improve the food security in her area, Ronda has been honored with a 2009 Garden Crusader Award.
Athens, a college town of about 25,000 residents is situated near West Virginia in Appalachia. The city has a robust local food system, including a year-round farmers market that has been in operation for 37 years and a produce auction where consumers buy in bulk.
CFI promotes gardening by building and running community gardens. They also host workshops on gardening, cooking, preserving the harvest and composting.
“We encourage gardening any way we can. Grow in the backyard. Grow in your front yard. Grow in a community garden. Just grow food,” she said. Of CFI’s 12 community garden sites, the largest contains 160 plots and has grown into a thriving social scene.
“People garden next to each other and learn from each other. It’s a real social community that has power and brings people together,” she said. Community gardeners learn from each other and they also help feed others in the city.
Ronda is now leading CFI to expand into smaller communities outside of Athens, where poverty, poor health and hunger are prevalent.
“We live in a bubble here (in Athens),” Ronda said, “when you get out into more rural areas, it is a lot more challenging. There is a lot of poverty, a lot of diabetes, a lot of obesity. There’s hunger. And many of our kids and our adults are nutrient-deficient.”
CFI is providing free produce to area residents, while teaching them how to garden. Many of these people did not grow up gardening and don't have the skills or confidence to start on their own.
“Gardening skipped about three generations,” she said. “And we need to bring it back, because gardens are so incredibly important for food security. Whatever may happen, if you have a garden, you'll always have food.”
There used to be a lot of coal mining in the area, and in many areas the soils are contaminated; some parks and green spaces sit right on top of coal slag. Ronda has observed that communities with poor soil often have human health problems. "That underscores the tremendous importance of compost", she said.
CFI teaches people how to garden, but it also provides thousands of pounds of fresh produce to people in need. Community gardeners are required to donate 10 percent of their produce to food shelves. And at the farmer’s market, CFI runs a “Donation Station” which encourages shoppers to buy extra produce to donate. Additionally, farmers donate their extra produce that doesn't sell at the market.
That all represents an enormous amount of fresh food for food banks, homeless shelters and other service providers. "The donated food helps turn more people on to a healthy diet", Ronda said.
“We’re trying to solve a whole host of problems by sneaking in the back door,” Ronda said. “We don’t say you have to eat this. We give people healthy food. You could go out and buy junk, or you could eat this wonderful free food. Eventually, people will eat the good stuff and hopefully they will realize that they feel better as a result.”
“We’re trying to get people addicted to good food,” she said. “And then they’ll want to garden themselves.”
Ronda doesn’t rest much, nor does she save her passion for gardening just for work. At home, she and her husband homeschool her three young daughters and she has three gardens, the largest of which is a 114 x 65-foot plot.
“I grow a lot of my own food and I homeschool, because food is so important,” she said. “You’ve got one chance at life and then you’re done. Getting good food to kids and schools is key.”
Her daughters get fresh, homegrown food all year. Ronda stocks her root cellar with potatoes and winter squash and her pantry with 140 quarts of tomatoes, not to mention pickles, dilly beans and corn relish.
“I want everyone to be able to grow food,” she said. “If your neighbors and your friends and your family know how to grow food, then you are food-secure."
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