While Richmond, Va., is typically known as a locale for delicious food, the neighborhood of Church Hill has very few options for healthy eating. A low-income neighborhood with families trying to get by on less than a living wage, there are no grocery stores in the area. Rather, people resort to food shopping at small corner stores that don’t have much in the way of fresh produce or other healthy options.
Caitlin Roberts, a Communities In Schools of Richmond site coordinator at Church Hill’s Chimborazo Elementary School, refused to let herself get overwhelmed by the enormity of the need to get healthy food to children. Last March, she noticed two raised gardening beds at the elementary school. Not much was being done with them, but Roberts saw the promise they held.
“I was interviewing a volunteer to be a mentor, and found out that she was a landscape architect,” Roberts said. “I told her about the garden, and she took it from there.”
Within a few weeks, the landscape architect, Anna Aquino, came to the site coordinator with plans for six more raised beds. She donated about $2,000 of her own money, and got her business contacts to donate supplies. With the help of a local farming nonprofit, last spring they planted a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Now Roberts had healthy food to feed Chimborazo’s students. But she wanted to take the program to the next level and feed their minds as well.
“They have all these fresh vegetables literally growing in their backyard, and Caitlin wondered how they could increase this opportunity to go with learning,” said Devan Colley, community engagement manager for Communities In Schools of Richmond.
On October 1, Chimborazo Elementary School’s fifth graders gathered in the “gymatorium” to kick off the school’s first farm-to-table initiative. Over the course of the school year, the 75 students will get to participate in monthly cooking sessions with two local chefs and a dietitian. When they’re not making healthy meals with produce from the garden, they will use cooking as a jumping-off point for practicing math through activities and worksheets. In addition, the students will get their hands dirty in the garden and help with planting, harvesting and making the garden beautiful by painting signs, trellises and benches. During the winter months, they’ll participate in activities to learn more about the plant cycle and earth science.
While the garden isn’t big enough for students to take home fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, Roberts is currently working out a way for families to visit and collect produce.
“I acknowledge that tackling the food desert problem is bigger than me,” Roberts said. “However, my goal for this initiative is to show the entire city the issues facing the families I serve, and hopefully community members will be willing to coordinate resources and help address serious issues like lack of access to healthy, affordable food.”
At the end of the school year, the students will have a “cooking night” where they make dinner with the food they’ve grown for their families at the school, and create a cookbook full of healthy recipes the students can share with their parents. The cookbook will also include valuable information about where to get fresh produce with food stamps.
“We work hard to get parent engagement rolling, and want to get families talking about creating a healthy lifestyle together,” Colley said.
Chimborazo’s farm-to-table initiative is a full-service opportunity for children. While it achieves the primary goal of getting healthy food to students who have little access to fresh produce, it also provides exercise and numerous learning opportunities. But to Roberts, one of the most important things children get from this project is peace of mind.
“This garden shows that you can create beauty in the midst of chaos. And there is a lot of chaos in their lives. Many of them are growing up in rough areas and struggling with poverty. This place is a little sanctuary for them with healthy food and beauty.”