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Community Gardens Grow Strong Bodies and Minds

Media Contact:
Jennifer Martin, (202) 720-8188

By Stacy Kish
August 26, 2009

Community gardens are unique microcosms where people can learn about the science behind growing plants and provide an environment that cultivates social responsibility.

With funding from USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES), a non-profit organization in Virginia is working to make its community more self-reliant at maintaining its food systems while addressing food, nutrition, and farm issues.

Lynchburg Grows is a multi-faceted non-profit program that brings the healthy benefits of organic gardens to its community. Lynchburg Grows educates the public, especially children, about local and organic food, gardening and nutrition programs for local primary schools, and vocational training for disabled and low-income people. 

Lynchburg Grows incorporates hands-on urban agriculture and a food and nutrition curriculum at five local elementary schools to reache over 560 children annually. This curriculum meets the Virginia Standards of Learning and provides educational experiences through classroom lessons, tastings, and cooking demonstrations.

“A big focus of what we’re trying to do is hands-on,” said Michael Van Ness, a co-founder of Lynchburg Grows. The program brings teachers together to understand how to incorporate gardening into their schoolyard as a laboratory for real-life learning.

The program also reaches at-risk youth from Rivermont Day School, the Juvenile Detention Center, and special needs students at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Va.

“[The farm] gives [students] a place where they don’t have to be on guard all the time. They can relax and learn things,” said Dereck Cunningham, co-founder of the program.

Providing vocational training and job placement opportunities for special needs individuals is a cornerstone to Lynchburg Grows and a key reason for Cunningham’s active participation. Diagnosed with spina bifida, a spinal cord condition that limits mobility, doctors did not expect Cunningham to live past the age of 12.  Now a man of 36, Cunningham wants to provide opportunities to people with special needs.

“Individuals with special needs, whatever they may be, would love to give back to the community, but sometimes have a hard time finding a way [that they can] contribute. This program is one way that we can allow them to do that,” Cunningham said.

The group expanded their operations in 2006 after purchasing the Schenkel farm, a 6-acre plot of land formally used for rose cultivation. The group continues to grow the Schenkel family roses, but the farm now overflows with tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, basil, fennel, sesame seeds, lettuce, Swiss chard, pumpkins, squash, watermelon, corn, sunflowers, nasturtium, and herbs.

The program also operates six community gardens within Lynchburg’s city limits that sustain local, organic food production. Lynchburg Grows assists with community revitalization through new, workable garden spaces that provide access to fresh, healthy produce. The community gardens also provide an alternate source of personal food production and economic and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Flowers and produce cultivated at the farm and community gardens are sold at the local Lynchburg Community Market every Saturday. The program also provides local restaurants with a fresh, local supply of vegetables and greens.

Lynchburg Grows was founded in 2003 by Dereck Cunningham, John Wormuth, Scott Lowman, and Michael Van Ness.

CSREES funded this project through the Community Foods Project program. Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, CSREES focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future. For more information, visit www.csrees.usda.gov.

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