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Fighting Income Disparity with Food for Kids in Augusta County

Project Grows in Augusta County is a youth-oriented community farm.Their mission is to improve the overall health of children and youth in Augusta County through community farming,and as WMRA's Kara Lofton reports, that includes letting local kids appreciate food more by letting them get their hands dirty in the garden.

The metal skeleton of a half-built greenhouse stands watch over new shoots of kale and sugar snap peas on Project Grows farm in Augusta County. The greenhouseis one of the project’s newest undertakings. When it is completed, it will help the five-year-old organization maximize the amount of food it’s able to produce.  

The farm was born as a result of a 2010-planning meeting with the Regional Partners for Prevention Services. The group decided a new approach was needed to improve the health of children and youth in the Augusta County areas. The goal: to provide local, affordable food to all 20,000 children and youth in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County.  Ryan Blosser is the executive director at Project Grows. 

BLOSSER: We know that there are a lot of health disparities where there’s also wealth disparity, and Staunton and Waynesboro, our area, is ranked 18th in the country in income disparity. And so you look at that and you know there’s going to be pockets of negative health outcomes almost intuitively throughout our area that we want to work with through food access.  

For Blosser, food access means not just providing families with affordable fresh food to put on their tables, but educating children through programs such as the project’s eight-week Summer Farm School and field trips.  

BLOSSER: Sometimes the struggle I have when I start to talk about Project Grows is we do so much. So we got to break it down into these neat categories of distribution, production and education.  With our school trips and most of the trips with the kids coming out a large part of that is food education. So they are learning nutrition education and learning about what’s on their plate, what to put on their plate, they are learning how good it tastes.  

Fourth grader Alison Babral participated in the Summer Farm School last summer through one of Waynesboro’sBoys & Girls Clubs.  

ALISON BABRAL: When I first got to Project Grows I didn’t like getting dirty.  We actually started doing a lot of fun stuff so by the end of the year it was my favorite day to go.  

Blosser said visiting school groups get lessons tied to the SOLS, with education about the life cycle of a plant, or composting, or the relationship between soil, water and sunlight. In the summer, the Boys & Girls Clubsin Waynesboro and Stauntonsend out busloads of kids to the Farm School to learn how to grow food and, on Thursday nights, to prepare it.  

BLOSSER: We’ll have 50 or 60 middle schoolers out there. They’re learning how to grow the food, they are working in the gardens and then at least ten of those kids will get to work with our chef that we contract and learn how to prepare food because we know that food preparation is a barrier to food access. And they prepare the food.  Then at 6:00o'clock we all sit down to a potluck-style dinner and that’s really a lot of fun.  

Ali Ross is another fourth grader who participated in last summer’s farm school.  

ALI ROSS: At Boys & Girls Club we don’t really have a garden there, but when you’re outside it’s really fun to plant and eat it because sometimes it takes a little while for the plants to grow.  

Blosser hopes to remedy the lack of a garden near the club with an urban garden in a reclaimed parking lot across the street from one of the Waynesboro clubs. They plan to start working on it later this year.  

Besides production and education, there’s distribution. Project Grows operates two farmer’s markets: one in north Augusta County and another in Waynesboro. They also sell shares of a Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA,for $500 a season (the season runs for 18 weeks) and for those can’t afford the CSA shares, a “Bounty Basket,” which essentiallyis a CSA share for $30 a season. They identify who is eligible for a Bounty Basket through their partner organizations such as the Boys & Girls club, which eliminates the need for Project Grows to screen families themselves.  

So is it working? Is Project Grows really changing the health outcomes of children in Staunton, Waynesboro, and Augusta County?  

BLOSSER: Anecdotally, yes. It’s going to take some time and some work to see what those numbers look like three years from now, for example.  

Blosser says that they’ll know they’re doing a good job when there no longer is a need for Project Grows. In his point of view, a non-profit exists not to sustain the non-profititself, but to support the community in which it works.  

Susan Antz is the director of development for the Augusta County Boys & Girls Clubs.  

SUSANANTZ: I think idea of just growing things, being part of the process where there is not an instant gratification element where it takes method and patience and care and there are steps involved, but they’re also there at the arrival of the product and they are able to see what it is that it resulted in. I think that’s really important, it’s almost like a living metaphor for exactly the sort of message we’re trying to send with regards to the big picture, which is the really good stuff, the stuff that’s going to make a difference in the end for you, for your family is all what you put into it and it’s all going to be worth the effort.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.