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Community Members Grow Together

If you drive the busy road that fronts the Charter School of the Dunes in Gary, Indiana, you won’t see a grocery store nearby; the kindergarten through 8th grade school is located in a food desert, where residents cannot access affordable or good-quality fresh food. But the school’s garden, with its raised beds painted in bright colors and compost pile, might catch your eye.

Through the Growing Together program, Purdue Extension in Lake County partnered with the school to build a garden that provides fruits and vegetables to students and their families and raises awareness of the benefits of healthier eating. The former principal and current superintendent, Justin Stok, also hopes that over time the garden can even help students acquire basic business skills.

Lake County is among 12 county Extension offices that received Growing Together mini-grants in 2021 to fund partnerships among Master Gardeners, Extension Educators, and Community Wellness Coordinators (CWCs) with the Purdue Extension Nutrition Education Program (NEP) — a U.S. Department of Agriculture SNAP-Education agency in Indiana. Purdue Extension has participated in this collaborative, multistate project since 2016.

In Indiana the grants have funded local Purdue Extension projects in urban and rural settings to build and maintain community donation gardens whose harvests benefit food pantries and service agencies.

Growing Together is implemented in different ways statewide, thanks to the CWCs’ cultural sensitivity and creativity, says Marcia Sweet, Marketing and Communication Specialist for the Purdue Extension NEP. “People have great ideas, but sometimes it’s difficult to know how to get started or where to find the resources. We help people find clever ways to make their dreams come true — and there’s no standard way of doing that.”

Lake County CWCs Erin Sherrow- Hayse and Veronica Jalomo have facilitated new gardens as well as the adaptation of existing ones for people with disabilities. They agree that having specialists in health and wellness, nutrition and urban agriculture uniquely positions Purdue Extension to partner with a wide range of organizations.

“Community partners help a school garden to be successful,” says Sherrow-Hayse, who worked with Charter School of the Dunes. “That’s what sustains it — that, and desire and intent from faculty and staff. For a school to do that during a pandemic would be difficult anyplace, but in a marginalized community like Gary, that is a huge piece.”

The Katherine House Boys and Girls Club in the Harbor area of East Chicago, Indiana, reached out to Purdue Extension for grant-writing help to fund a community garden. Their goal was to provide fresh produce to children who attend the club and families in the area. The Harbor is a food desert with limited fresh produce.

Once it had the grant in hand, Jalomo coordinated additional Extension resources to help the Boys and Girls Club build their garden. Children now learn about gardening and nutrition as they tend the plants during their summer camp. Jalomo says her own labor pays off in the joy of watching a child taste a vegetable that’s completely new to them, or even a familiar one that tastes quite different from what their parent buys at the market.

The garden behind Boys and Girls Club has four raised beds about 12 inches high plus a newer accessible bed 30 inches high. ADA-compliant high beds were added to Lake County’s community gardens this year, tapping the expertise of a Lake County Master Gardener who uses a wheelchair.

Community gardening toolkits often leave out an accessibility piece, the CWCs note. “We’ve added accessible beds as part of these three gardens, but there’s so much that needs to be done around accessible gardening,” Sherrow-Hayse says. “Our hope is that this continues and is part of every garden.”

Sherrow-Hayse and Jalomo’s former Extension colleague, Theresa Mince, facilitated the transformation of a vacant lot in Hammond, Indiana, into the InnerMission Neighborhood Farm, where bilingual signage welcomes diverse would-be gardeners. Neighbors became friends while weeding and, with their families, celebrated its harvest together in late September. Community members enjoyed the produce they reaped throughout the summer, and the garden also benefited a church’s food pantry, homeless shelter and domestic abuse shelter.

Through the Growing Together program, Extension-supported gardens are growing healthy produce, interest in nutrition, STEM education, entrepreneurship, and local environment and sustainability practices.

These projects are community-based. We don’t go in and make this happen. This is the community or the school having the desire and putting the sweat equity in.”

- Erin Sherrow-Hayse, Purdue Extension - Lake County Nutrition Education Program Community Wellness Coordinator


17 community gardens were supported by mini-grants.

382 volunteers contributed over 4,400 hours.

14,634 pounds of produce were donated to 43 service organizations across Indiana.


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