Community gardens have become an increasingly popular approach to address food insecurity and build sustainable local food systems. A critical need exists for solutions in western North Carolina, where food insecurity rates have reached 13-20%. In rural Polk County, 26% of children live in food insecure households, many people lack reliable transportation, and food markets are few and far between. Groundswell International, a nonprofit operating in Polk County, works to empower rural communities through farmer outreach, technical assistance with agroecological practices, and efforts to build local sustainable food systems. In 2015, Groundswell International launched its “Grow Food Where People Live” (GFWPL) project in Polk County, which aimed to address food insecurity by bolstering rural economies, developing a sustainable local food system, and improving access to fresh and affordable produce. This study evaluated the GFWPL project, with a focus on health and wellness impacts of the GFWPL project on program participants in rural Polk County.
This study took place in Ashley Meadows, a Section 8 housing development in Polk County. The authors chose this site because the residents had low incomes (which can exacerbate food insecurity) and because the management team was open to their constructing a garden on the grounds of the complex. In the spring of 2015, GFWPL staff hosted a volunteer day at the community's designated garden space, during which Ashley Meadows residents helped install garden beds, plant fruit trees, build a compost station, and prep the space for planting. Once the garden was established, the GFWPL program was launched. The program consisted of unstructured garden workdays and structured evening workshops. Workshop curricula was developed by the authors. During the growing season, program participants were expected to regularly help maintain the garden on their own schedules. Staff also hosted 15 weekly workshops on various topics, such as sustainable gardening, pickling and canning, and cooking with garden produce.
Staff collected informal feedback (through conversations) from participants after each workshop and used this feedback to adjust programming on an ongoing basis, refine the workshop curriculum, and give the program more structure. For the 2016 growing season, GFWPL staff implemented evaluation to measure programmatic impact. Program participants were asked to take a survey at the start of the growing season (in May 2016) and then at the end of the season (in September 2016). The surveys contained open-ended, scaled, and multiple-choice questions. Though 14 residents (12 female, 2 male) participated in the program, only 7 (aged 33-70) took both pre- and post-surveys. The pre-survey asked participants about their health and wellness behaviors, their interest in the program, and demographics. The post-survey asked participants to report on any changes in their health and wellness behaviors. Participants were asked to rate their health on a scale of 1 to 5 (1=very unhealthy, 3=average, 5=very healthy). The post-survey also asked participants to reflect and comment on their experiences with the garden program. Although the pre- and post-surveys were not identical, some questions were the same on both, so the authors were able to make some comparisons between the two surveys.
While the authors identified several needed improvements to the program, they found that participation in this project resulted in an overall positive experience for the participants. The authors found a small increase in how participants rated their health; before the program, participants rated their health as average (3 out of 5), and after the program, this increased slightly (3.4 out of 5). However, when asked whether their health had improved since starting the garden program, five out of seven participants indicated that it had. Those who indicated improved health noted improvements in physical health (from more exercise and healthier eating) and emotional health. All participants indicated that they spent less money each week on food, and most felt very positive and proud about growing their own food. Participants also reported that they enjoyed the workshops with hands-on activities the most.
GFWPL staff reported that the greatest challenge to a successful community garden program was achieving consistent participation. Low participation numbers at workshops were the norm, and staff found it difficult to encourage residents to tend to the garden on a regular basis. Residents told staff that they endured constant fear of getting evicted, which de-emphasized the importance of participating in the garden program. Beyond participation challenges, other obstacles included lack of respect for the garden space from landscapers, personality conflicts among residents, and intense summer heat.
This study has several limitations. First, the authors did not clearly articulate who collected the data, nor did they indicate how they were involved in the program. With survey responses from only 7 participants, the authors were unable to analyze the survey data using statistics. As a result, it's unclear whether the shifts in health are significant. The findings of this study are not generalizable to other programs or locations. Further, health and wellness impacts were self-reported, and respondents may have inflated the benefits of the program to please the program staff. The authors also found flaws in the survey that limited the reliability of the data they did collect. For example, some questions were poorly worded and did not elicit the types of responses the authors hoped for. Because questions varied on the pre- and post-program surveys, that limited the extent to which the authors could measure changes due to participation in the program. Additionally, participants often gave short or incomplete answers to the open-ended questions. Finally, the short-term nature of the evaluation did not offer any insights into long-term impacts of the community garden program.
The authors recommend implementing their 13-lesson curriculum at other community garden projects. Those interested in starting community garden programs may want to prioritize communities where residents are less transient and perhaps more invested in the community, which could improve participation. The authors also recommend that staff consider providing incentives for participation to ensure garden success, which may also aid in the ability to collect sufficient data for a more robust evaluation. In addition, the authors believe that evaluation is crucial to measure the effectiveness of a program or curriculum and to identify needed improvements. They recommend improving the accuracy of the survey by pretesting to ensure that the questions are being interpreted correctly
The Bottom Line
<p>This study evaluated a community garden program and curriculum in rural North Carolina, which took place at a Section 8 housing development and included weekly workshops and gardening guidance. Most participants reported improved health, all spent less money on food, and most felt positively about the program. However, program participation was inconsistent and very few participants completed both before and after surveys. To improve the program, the authors recommend offering incentives for participation and choosing sites where community members are likely to participate. They also emphasize the importance of incorporating evaluation to measure the impact of a program, as well as to identify opportunities for improvement.</p>