“As a good gardener prepares the soil, so a wise leader creates an environment that promotes community.” – Diane Dreher
That quote from Dreher, an author, researcher and positive psychology coach, could be used as the testimony of a group which has worked to provide Orangeburg, Bamberg and Calhoun counties with fresh fruit and vegetables over the past five years.
Growing Calhoun, Orangeburg, Bamberg, or Growing COB, helps create community gardens that include everything from okra, collard greens and squash to rosemary, thyme and tomatoes. It also conducts fresh produce distributions.
‘A good quality of life’
Growing COB officially began in 2018. It grew out of a discussion among community leaders who gathered to begin what was going to be the Orangeburg chapter of End Child Hunger, a group out of the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health.
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Discussions revealed an interest in community gardens, which are now peppered throughout Orangeburg, Bamberg and Calhoun counties with the help of the Tri-County Health Network and MUSC Health-Orangeburg, Growing COB’s fiscal agents.
“People need food to survive. So we’re doing our best to provide folks with healthy food. The fact that healthy food is not available to everyone is somewhat of a social justice issue because you have food deserts,” TCHN Manager Dr. LaShandra N. Morgan said.
“And a lot of times in minority neighborhoods, you have swamp food, where it’s like all this unhealthy food in abundance, and then the healthy food you can’t find. So we’re doing our best to fill those gaps so people can have a good quality of life,” she said.
Morgan said Ashley Bookhart, a SNAP-Ed program coordinator in the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the USC Arnold School of Public Health, was instrumental in the first meetings among partners to address child hunger and the subsequent creation of community gardens.
“She and I kind of spearheaded things. A bunch of partners got together and started talking about it. We applied for what was known as an Eat Smart, Move More South Carolina grant at the time. They’re Wholespire now,” she said.
After securing the grant, Growing COB opened its first community garden on the campus of South Carolina State University in early October of 2018.
‘Open to everyone’
Growing COB is run by a five-member board that meets monthly and is supported by an arsenal of volunteers whose various duties include helping with the creation of community gardens.
Its community partners include, but are not limited to, the following:
• Bamberg County Community Rural Art Works League
• Caring Always Matters Foundation
• Orangeburg County Library, Orangeburg Branch
• Orangeburg County Soil & Water Conservation District
• SC Department of Health and Environmental Control
• SC State University 1890 Research and Extension Program
• Small Business Development Center
• Southeastern Housing & Community Development
“We have a lot of different groups. … Anyone who wants to come volunteer can come. With a lot of our gardens, sometimes you have college students looking for some volunteer hours. Then you have some people who just genuinely love to grow things,” Morgan said.
“Some people like to teach and they like to work with the kids in the garden. We have a lot of participation from youth,” she said.
Morgan said an organization or group usually takes ownership of a garden themselves “and then Growing COB and the Tri-County Health Network do the best we can to offer assistance and resources.”
Community gardens are located not just at SC State, but the following locations: Cordova near the Boys and Girls Club; the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Orangeburg; Denmark at Cummings Park; Ehrhardt behind the town hall; Bowman at the CIGEO Community Center; and the Vance Senior Center.
Macedonia AME Church in Cope launched the community opening of their garden April 23. It became the first church to have a garden, while St. Matthews will be holding the grand opening of its community garden at 10 am Wednesday, May 10, at the John Ford Community Center.
“With the one in Ehrhardt, that’s our smallest community with the biggest garden. We did the raised beds, but when we showed up, they had plowed all this land because they wanted to plant all these collard greens. “We’re like, ‘OK, we’ll go with it,'” Morgan said.
She said anyone can partake of the community gardens’ bounty.
“Absolutely anybody. People go through hard times. Somebody might not look what they’re going through. So you think they’re fine, and they’re not able to afford food. So we always ask that our gardens be open to everyone. People are allowed to pick what they want to pick for free, and that’s it,” Morgan said.
‘We’re building communities’
Morgan said she has seen a slight decline in the prevalence of health risk factors which plagued the tri-county area, including obesity. She attributes that to not only the community gardens, but also educating individuals on how they can start their own gardens and live a healthy lifestyle.
“I actually have been bragging to folks because I’ve been seeing that downward trend throughout our tri-county area. I completely credit all of the partnerships because we are very good at working together, collaborating and not working in silos,” she said.
Morgan continued, “In a lot of cases, we’ll try to lend a helping hand and be like, ‘How can I help?’ We help each other promote things, like the fresh produce distributions that the network’s been doing in conjunction with the county, and the ones that Growing COB was initially doing through the community gardens that are all over the place.
“Then at the Purple Martin Festival, we had what we called the Healthy Living Pavilion, where people could get health screenings. So it makes them aware of what their numbers are so they can pay attention and know what to do. So I think everybody working together has really been helpful.”
Morgan said Growing COB’s mission is a testament to the work they’re doing.
“We don’t just build gardens, we’re building communities,” she said.
Bookhart said it has been a pleasure working with Growing COB.
“I think it’s amazing to see how many gardens we’ve got now. We always referred to ourselves as COB. It took us five years to fully fulfill COB. We wanted to get into Calhoun County, and this Wednesday we’ll finally be able to say we’ve reached all three counties. We hope that we can continue to serve the community by providing these gardens and partnering with folks,” she said.
Bookhart continued, “We never want to try to start too many gardens at one time. We want the work to get it done, but we want it to be sustainable. We always used to say we don’t want that to become us. We want to be very careful in how we scale them and how we approach them.”
“We don’t want our core leadership team to be expected to be the one that’s going to do all the work. We want to have folks who are going to be just as invested, a team of folks willing to maintain the garden, plant the garden,” she said, noting that every community is different.
Carrie Rivers, who attended Macedonia AME Church in Cope, said the April 23 launch of the community garden was a “beautiful event.”
“We had a lot of work to do. Everything that we got as far as getting it together and planting it was donated through Growing COB. The only thing we had to do was work,” he said.
Rivers said the garden doesn’t belong to Macedonian AME, but the entire community.
“That was our goal, just to help people in need. Just seeing them out there was such a thrill. So many people. That was awesome,” she said.
Growing COB board member Anetra Hardy, whose home church is Macedonian AME, said the work of providing the community with fresh fruits and vegetables is fulfilling.
She said gardening provides both physical and mental benefits.
“This work also helps me and gives me the internal satisfaction and gratitude to be able to give to other folks… by being able to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to folks and literally talk about nutrition and the health benefits,” said Hardy.
Jessica Collins, owner of Ready 2 Bloome LLC in Bamberg, has provided seedlings to Growing COB for the development of community gardens.
“With LaShandra’s help and Growing COB, we organize days for people to have access to fresh fruits or vegetables for the community. I work in the community garden. In working with the Growing COB, I’ll probably be providing for five of their raised bed gardens this year,” Collins said.
She continued, “I want to be able to give my community a service. I come from a generation of people who have provided services to the community. My grandfather was a deacon, and he used to go to the hospital and visit people. So everybody may have a different type of service, but if you have something that you’re good at, you should be able to provide that back to the community.”
College students Jada Allen and Saraya Deloach, who are both 20, were among the volunteers out at the John Ford Community Center helping out with the community garden there.
Allen, an SC State student, said, “I just recently started volunteering with Growing COB. I’m doing it for my shadow hours. I just finished a community health worker program. So this is my first time actually getting in-the-field experience as a community health worker.”
Allen said she loves working with the community garden.
“It’s honestly awakened a new passion within me to help the community. The last garden we did was at a church, and the pastor said, ‘From this more than a garden will grow.’ That stuck with me since then. It just feels good to be able to give back to people,” Allen said.
Deloach said, “I don’t think a lot of people realize that a lot of the health issues that we have come from the things that we put into our bodies. So I just think it’s really good that they have this option for people to come out here.
“It’s free, it’s natural, no preservatives or pesticides or anything. Just allow people the opportunity to get some clean, healthy food at no cost.”
Contact the writer: [email protected] or 803-533-5534. Follow “Good News with Gleaton” on Twitter at @DionneTandD