Many years ago, when University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor John Jemison spent a five-month sabbatical in central Italy, he reveled in how Italians approach the food they eat.
He got to know the proprietors of the small fruit and vegetable markets in his neighborhood by name, was invited to dine with families and learn their food traditions such as making fettuccine by hand, and feasted on the fresh, seasonal fare that was simple and yet delicious. When Jemison came home, he threw out his expired Sam’s Club card and got to know the farmers at his local farmers market. But something about the situation troubled him.
“Why should professors and professionals be the lucky ones with access to good, healthy food while others around us went without?” he wrote recently in an essay. “I knew access to quality food was problematic for our low-income seniors, and perhaps we could try to do something about that.”
This year, the Orono Community Garden, which Jemison helped found after returning home from Italy, will mark its 14th season growing a rainbow of fresh, organic vegetables that are shared with local seniors on fixed incomes. But that’s not all it has grown, he said.
“Really, what we’re trying to do is build a little bit of community,” he said. “There’s just a lot of wonderful interactions that happen. I’ve often said it’s the conversations we have in the garden that get me through the dark, icy parts of the winter.”
Gardening is a great way to grow fresh, healthy fare at an affordable cost. But in order to be a successful gardener, most people figure you have to have a few things. You have to have access to some kind of land, seeds and other garden inputs, time, some mobility and, of course, some know-how. These requirements may make home gardening and its hoped-for harvest out of reach for many folks, including those who are low income, who live in apartments or housing projects that do not have land or allow gardening or who feel they are not physically able to dig in the dirt and do other gardening work.
This isn’t fair, according to Jemison and others around the state who are committed to growing community gardens that make a point of providing fresh vegetables for everyone, not just those who can afford to pay top dollar for good quality produce. These community gardens take different shapes, but the end goal for all of them is pretty much the same.
“That it will change what people think about food, and that people will be moved to eat more and more healthfully,” Pam Dyer Stewart, who is involved in Incredible Edible Milbridge, a series of public vegetable gardens and education initiatives, said. “My hope is that there will be more kids who grow up planting gardens and know how to do it. More families planting gardens. And I think the relationships formed in the community, bringing people together who might not have been together before is probably my dream.”
Incredible Edible Milbridge was inspired by Incredible Edible Todmorden, a project started in a market town in West Yorkshire, England, after the global economic collapse of 2008, Stewart said. In that community, women got together to brainstorm ways to revitalize their town, she said, and decided that one solution could be food. They began to grow fruit, herbs and vegetables in gardens all over Todmorden. The project was a big success in England and has translated well to other places, too, including Washington County.
This summer, there will be 24 or so gardens dotting Milbridge, running the gamut from small raised beds to a 14,000 square foot garden by the Red Barn Motel.
“We have something like 30 people a day once the vegetables are in, coming with their bag in hand, picking from the garden,” Stewart said. “It’s everybody, from across the socioeconomic range. Families come, old people come, children come — it’s remarkable.”
The Incredible Edible Milbridge gardens rely on volunteer labor but also on Michael Hayden, better known locally as “Farmer Mike,” who runs Folklore Farm in Milbridge. The Women’s Health Resource Library, the Milbridge nonprofit organization that started Incredible Edible Milbridge, has been able to secure grant funding to hire him to manage the large garden by the Red Barn Motel. The combination of volunteer support, farmer know-how, business donations and community collaboration has been successful, she said. And so have the gardens, which are ever-changing. This summer, Incredible Edible Milbridge is connecting with Mano en Mano, an organization that works with farmworkers and immigrants to settle and thrive in Maine, to plant a salsa garden that will feature tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapeno peppers.
“It’s far exceeded our expectations,” Stewart said of the project. “One of the things I like about it is that even though most of the people who come and pick aren’t necessarily weeding in the garden, they’re developing a relationship with their food. The garden is alive and full of living things, and people are getting to know the garden. It’s an act of engagement.”
Another project that sprung up last summer is the Stevens Green Community Garden in Rockland. Even though the low-income housing project had rules that governed what could be planted there — only plants in small containers — residents who had caught the gardening bug persevered and started to put seedlings into the ground. It turned out that Community Housing of Maine, which owns the housing project, was in favor, according to Dan Keltonic, the property manager.
“They were very much in support of it,” he said.
So residents really started digging in. They tore up old rose beds and turned it into a productive vegetable patch, according to Keltonic, and easily a third of the community spent time working on it. Between 50 and 100 people live in the project’s 26 apartments, he said.
“With a garden, you’re going to put seeds in the ground and plants are going to come up,” he said. “But the neighbors, you didn’t really know who would interact. There were a lot of good things that came from it.”
In Orono, the community garden is located behind the Birch Street Senior Center, with an additional third of an acre plot at Rogers Farm in Old Town, the University of Maine’s research farm. Over the growing season, Jemison and the garden volunteers deliver vegetables to about 60 low-income seniors from late June through September. They grow vegetables including lettuce, garlic, onions, red and striped beets, beet greens, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage and much more, and provided the seniors with recipes and a caring, listening ear. Jemison said he has learned that the recipients feel fairly food secure and don’t worry about where their next meal will come from. They don’t rely on the bags of vegetables that are delivered to their homes. But they like it, he said.
“They enjoy our coming by,” he said. “They’re happy to see us.”
Over the years, Jemison has seen volunteers and vegetable recipients come and go. Some seniors have moved away after they can no longer live in independent housing, and some have gone even further.
“I’ve been to some funerals,” he said.
Jemison is getting older, too. He’s always on the lookout for more volunteers to help with the garden project and talks about being less physically able to do the hard gardening work than he was 14 years ago. He anticipates one day handing the baton of the community garden to the next person who will take it on. But that day isn’t here just yet.
“I want to keep doing it as long as I can,” he said. “Of all my extension projects I’ve had through the years, this has just been the most meaningful.”