Gardens growing change in Flint

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

The Greater Flint Health Coalition (GFHC) delivers nutrition and physical activity education with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) direct education programming to residents, including senior citizens, across Flint and Genesee County. This work has also been the cornerstone of their policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE) initiatives, which seek to bring together people and organizations across the community to address barriers to healthy living. With a focus on senior center-based community gardens, GFHC is working with the community to address barriers to healthy living by improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables and providing a safe place for senior citizens to be active in the region.

GFHC is a collaboration between Flint and Genesee counties’ public health systems, physicians, hospitals, health insurers, safety-net providers, businesses, educational institutions, community-based organizations, nonprofits, government policymakers, labor, media, and local residents. The community gardens represent how GFHC is working to effect positive change across the communities they serve. Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) SNAP-Ed partners have catalyzed resources and connections to support the work.

The Greater Flint Health Coalition's work in gardens grew out of its SNAP-Ed direct education programming like Fresh Conversations and Rec-Connect™, pictured here at Burton Senior Activity Center.
MFF is a State Implementing Agency of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. MFF offers grants to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout the state of Michigan.

"What we're doing with the community gardens is an extension of our SNAP-Ed work. It really addresses a lot of different issues in Flint and Genesee County," says Joshua Fields, GFHC assistant project manager. "In neighborhoods where you start adding community gardens by greening vacant or blighted lots, studies show crime goes down and community pride goes up. And the crime just doesn't go to the next block. It just kind of diffuses out."

GFHC’s PSE work in gardens grew out of its SNAP-Ed direct education programming like Fresh Conversations and Rec-Connect™. The Fresh Conversations program is designed for seniors and held at Flint’s Calvary United Methodist Church. It supports healthy aging and independence with strategies for easy and affordable healthy eating and physical activity.

"All of our Fresh Conversations lessons are heavily fruit- and veggie-driven," says Alaina Larrea, GFHC assistant project manager. "When we host the class, we can take the seniors out to the garden to show them some of the fruits and vegetables that we're talking about and why it's important for us to eat them. This helps us tie the lesson together as a whole with seeing how things grow and getting them fresh."

The Greater Flint Health Coalition's work in gardens grew out of its SNAP-Ed direct education programming like Fresh Conversations and Rec-Connect™, pictured here at Burton Senior Activity Center.
GFHC uses MFF’s Rec-Connect™ program to help people shift how they think about physical activity. This is done by creating a supportive atmosphere where people can incorporate no- or low-cost ways to be physically active in their community and use what they’ve learned to be active at home. For example, in community settings, people can do physical activity “tastings” where they are able to tryout a variety of fun physical activities like dancing and fun chair exercises. Throughout the program, people learn how physical activity builds strength that supports daily movement, which is especially helpful for activities like gardening.

The Greater Flint Health Coalition's work in gardens grew out of its SNAP-Ed direct education programming like Fresh Conversations and Rec-Connect™, pictured here at Burton Senior Activity Center.
In the process of hosting SNAP-Ed direct education programming at various community centers, GFHC staff learned that the senior centers they were working with had a need for fresh produce. They also learned two of the sites where they provided programming had community gardens that needed some additional support, the Krapohl Senior Center in Mt. Morris Township, northwest of Flint, and Hasselbring Senior Center on Flint’s north side.

As part of the community garden efforts, GFHC helped the Krapohl Center repair a 26- by 49-foot greenhouse that had been destroyed by a storm.

"We were able to obtain funds through the AARP Community Challenge, and SNAP-Ed provided technical assistance in finding the right person to repair the greenhouse and the best place to buy the supplies needed to make the repairs," Fields says. "Krapohl may start some early-season growing in their greenhouse next year. They still have some interior work to do on it."

When it is complete, propane heating will extend Krapohl’s growing season and exponentially increase the amount of fruits and vegetables produced.

There are plans in the works to double the size of the community garden at Hasselbring and make it more accessible, with longer-lasting metal raised beds to replace the beds made from wood. Having new raised-bed gardens built higher will make it easier for older adults so they don’t have to bend or squat to access the plants. And having them placed further apart will allow wheelchair access. While the garden generated produce last year, like Krapohl, the improvements will help greatly expand output in the coming season.

"We'll basically be doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables that they can turn out," Fields says. "We want to increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption — and this will help. We also want to provide free and safe space for physical activity. The community and the greenhouses offer that opportunity for our seniors."

Many community partners have contributed time, talent, resources, and direction to the community gardens, including the Community Garden Network, Flint and Genesee Food Policy Council, Food Pantry Network, and the Genesee Lions Club, which donated 500 packages of seeds.

Other GFHC-supported community gardens are providing fresh produce to their neighborhoods, including Carriage Town Ministries, Carman Ainsworth Senior Center, First United Church, First Union Missionary Baptist Church, Crossover Outreach, and many more area food pantries.

"Some of our residents have never cooked with fresh produce," Larrea says. "It's nice that now we can go with them and pick something from the garden, show them how to cut it up and prepare it, be more hands-on, and get them actively eating it."
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