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County to give immigrants a taste of the familiar
Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Somali leader was looking for a plot of land where his people might grow familiar food in a strange new homeland.

"He said, 'Can you help me get my people into the field?'  " Franklin County Commissioner John O'Grady remembers. "These are people who had lived in huts. What they know is farming."

O'Grady quickly found the Bantu man just the right spot. By mid-August, the commissioners plan to launch the first of several community gardens.

Soon kale, broccoli and cabbage -- late-season, cool-weather crops -- will fill a corner of 88-acres that once housed county child-welfare offices and cottages on the South Side.

But food is only half the expected harvest: O'Grady envisions that refugees and residents, working side by side, might find common ground.

"In working together, in growing together, in spending time together, there is a benefit to everyone," O'Grady said.

Community gardens are growing in popularity as a way to provide healthful, affordable food in urban neighborhoods and quality produce for suburbanites.

"When we started this in 2000, there were 12 community gardens (throughout central Ohio), and those 12 were struggling," said Bill Dawson, coordinator of the Growing to Green program at the Franklin Park Conservatory.

"Now, through grant programs and education, we have well over 150 community gardens."

Many of those are at schools and settlement houses. But some communities, such Grandview Heights, have started their own gardens. Fees there are modest, about $50 for a small plot, Dawson said.

Franklin County's community gardens will be open to all residents. O'Grady said officials are working on details such as fees, scholarships and future locations.

O'Grady figures they can start the garden on $10,000 to $20,000, most of which will go toward bringing water to the crops and perhaps providing tools, seeds and fencing.

Commissioner Paula Brooks, who grew up on a farm, likes the idea. She's working with O'Grady to find funds, though money is tight these days because of city and state cuts in social and safety services.

"I am supportive of this community garden," Brooks said. "With very little money, people in that neighborhood, as well as our new immigrants, can take advantage of property that is just sitting there.

"But we have a lot of community needs."

Dawson said the county eventually can find grants. He said community gardens help combat diabetes, build community spirit, teach canning and cooking and educate about the importance of bees and the environment.

"Food is culture and culture is food," Dawson said. "When you can get different groups together in a common garden ... you hear, 'What do you do with those tomatillos? How do you really prepare those collard greens?'

"You are learning from your neighbors and getting to know your neighbors."

Zuleiko Osman, whose father, Ja'far Matan asked O'Grady for help, said Somalis are eager to grow tomatoes, potatoes and corn.

"Now they are going to the store. They want their own better quality," Osman said.

The garden is important for the entire community, said Barb Seckler, director of the Institute for Active Living at Columbus Public Health.

"It's about providing more nutritious food and access to local produce," Seckler said. "It's helping stock food pantries. It's providing opportunities for economic activity at farmers' markets."

"And it's about what happens when you bring people together and grow a community."

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Source: The Columbus Dispatch, July 04, 2009


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