Homegrown Nutrition for an Urban Community

Photo used by permission of Beardsley Community Farm/Knox County CAC Urban Agriculture Programs.Photo used by permission of Beardsley Community Farm/Knox County CAC Urban Agriculture Programs.Beardsley Community Farm in Knox County, Tennessee, proves that where need, passion, and funding meet, great things can happen. It's no surprise that last year they were a recipient of a Mantis Award -- a grants program administered by NGA in which Mantis annually awards tiller/cultivators to 25 organizations and schools that use gardens to restore neighborhoods, feed the needy, educate the public about nutrition and environmental issues, and provide safe and healthful outdoor havens for children. Beardsley Community Farm, a program of Knox County Community Action Committee, manages to make all of these services available for free to thousands of participants, despite a budget of just $36,000 per year.

“Getting the Mantis Award was a huge thing for us because we are so strapped,” says John Harris, director of Knox County CAC Urban Agriculture Programs. “We’ve gotten many community awards over the years, but it was amazing how we could use that tagline – ‘receives national award’ – and we suddenly had credibility. We got in the newspapers four times because of that!”

Beardsley Community Farm is an urban demonstration garden in Knoxville that uses about 500 volunteers every year to teach workshops; grow, harvest, and deliver produce to food pantries (about 3,000 pounds per year); and mentor youth groups. AmeriCorps farm volunteers also teach gardening and nutrition in area elementary schools and at the Boys' and Girls' Club, and there are summer programs on site for youth organizations. Plus, the program provides seeds, plants, and support to more than 900 gardeners annually. Love’s Kitchen, a service that provides free meals twice weekly, is a major recipient of donated produce. “They feed more than 1,500 people each week, and we provide their collards, tomatoes, and okra for 25 weeks during the growing season,” says Harris.

The farm was started with funding from a 1997 USDA grant, based on a neighborhood food assessment that found no reliable source of fresh produce within a 2.2-mile radius. “It was a no-man’s land,” says Harris. The grant allowed them to build a greenhouse to meet the increasing demand for vegetable seedling donations to low-income gardeners. That same year they established the farm on a couple of acres of an underused city park. The program emphasizes the importance of eating fresh, local, organic foods and using low-impact gardening methods, such as making compost.

There are community garden plots at Beardsley and at 24 other sites throughout the area. Most are sited near subsidized housing, and they always fill up. “We have some hard-core gardeners here,” says Harris. “More than half of our most dedicated gardeners are over 60 years old. We have a few gardeners and volunteers in their thirties and forties, and then there are a lot of 20-year-olds. The new mindset is: ‘Whatever I can do to get fresh food, I’ll do it.’” Plus they get to enjoy the outdoors in a safe place.

Since its inception in 1995, the annual Mantis Awards program has granted hundreds of tiller/cultivators to charitable and educational garden projects that enhance the quality of life in their communities. Learn more about the Mantis Award here.

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