EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth of a four-part series exploring the four initiatives the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative has partnered with to combat the isolation, disconnection and lack of self-worth – felt by many residents across the county – by improving health.
NORWAY — The Alan Day Community Garden and the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative want to literally and figuratively grow the local food movement to get more residents and organizations growing and eating healthy, organic food.
Those working on the project want to sow the seeds to help the Community Garden’s 4-H Youth Leadership program to expand to reach younger children at two of Community Concepts’ Early Learning Centers.
The existing program is for teens 13 and older who “spend eight weeks during the summer immersed in growing food, helping run a community supported agriculture share program (CSA), learn about food systems, food insecurity and how our community can help each other create more equitable access to healthy food,” according to Katey Branch, president of the Alan Day Community Garden Board of Directors.
Each summer, between 12 and 15 youth leaders learn how to grow, harvest, preserve and cook organic and locally produced food – which helps combat obesity and is a mutual goal of the Community Garden and Wellness Collaborative. They also share what they’ve learned with hundreds of their peers by giving garden tours and playing educational games “to improve understanding of the importance of food and how it affects our bodies, communities and economies,” she said.
“They are developing life-long habits that will support their health and well-being through diet, physical activity, service and building communication skills and relationships with others,” Branch added. “Some of the things kids have said is the garden is a refuge – it’s an escape from Facebook and video games and technology. And [there is] so much pressure around kids in substance use [through the program] they actually have a chance to make healthy choices.”
“It’s a safe place to feel welcomed and loved and meet new people,” said Jordan Stevens, one of the 2016 youth leaders.
For 2017, youth leaders will build raised garden boxes at the Community Concepts Early Learning Centers in Norway and Paris. The teens will tend the boxes throughout the summer and staff at the Early Learning Centers will use the vegetables for education and meals.
“The youth would be trained to help in providing technical assistance,” said Jim Douglas, member of the Wellness Collaborative and director of Healthy Oxford Hills. “How great for those [younger] kids to see older kids doing this.”
“Hopefully some of those families will come grow food in the garden,” Branch said.
There are roughly 30 different families with plots at the Community Garden, along with a couple of businesses and organizations, that grow food at the garden located on Whitman Street in Norway.
Another part of the program expansion is having the youth leaders and youth leadership coordinator participate in a restorative community training to learn how to “connect across different and social economic divides,” Douglas said, adding this will help combat obesity, along with substance use, and promote healthy eating and living.
“The Alan Day Community Garden was a great choice because of the potential to be replicated across the county,” he said. “Since they’ve always had a very strong focus on making connections and building relationships, in other words, they’ve always been working to offset and counter the isolation, disconnection, not … being valued, it was also a logical fit.
“I think part of what has already made Alan Day Community Garden successful is their folks are more intentional about that connecting part and the relationship-building part,” Douglas added. “That is part of what the collaborative sees as some sort of the magic sauce. Across the board, if we can infuse more of that orientation and that intention – this will make it more impactful.”
Douglas, Branch and Community Garden Executive Director Rocky Crockett plan to have the youth leaders make a video to help publicize the work of the garden and garner interest from other communities to begin their own community garden and/or Youth Leadership program, which Alan Day members could help support.
“Part of the mission of the ADCG is to ‘cooperatively create a community food system,’ and this means expanding our work in Norway out into Oxford County,” Crockett said. “We envision whole communities being involved in growing food and really being able to take responsibility for their own health.”
The Community Garden is also working on a local food distribution system “so more people have more access to affordable, nutritious food.” The youth leaders can help in building these systems, which Crockett said has a huge potential to improve health.
“Support from school food service employees, teachers and social service organizations will be essential to making a positive impact in communities,” he said, noting it’s important for those working in the food service industry to work with the Community Garden.
Branch pointed to their new vision statement, which focuses on local food distribution. It reads, “We envision communities where everyone is meaningfully engaged in making healthy life choices and growing local food systems.”
“It fits with that idea of giving people space and support to make healthy choices around food, and how food and food systems affect everything – the economy, the community and our health,” she added. “It is very exciting to kind of realize that this little community garden in Norway can actually be an antidote to lots of issues in the world.”
There are a number of ways to get involved or support the Alan Day Community Garden and/or Youth Leadership program.
To apply for the Youth Leadership Program, visit https://alandaygarden.wordpress.com/resources/youth-leadership-program/ and download and fill out the application. Contact Crockett with questions at 346-0708 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
People, businesses and organizations can become a sponsor or donate to the garden or leadership program by donating on the Community Garden’s website, mailing at check to Alan Day Community Garden, 26 Whitman St., Norway, ME 04268, or offering in-kind donations or services.
Volunteers are always needed at the garden and everyone is welcome. Local students looking for a senior project, those needing community service hours or people who like to get their hands dirty can help out with a number of projects at the mostly volunteer-run Community Garden.
For more information, visit the website or contact Crockett.
The Oxford County Wellness Collaborative (OCWC) is one of 11 Maine communities selected to implement projects in the Maine Health Access Foundation’s (MeHAF) Healthy Community grant initiative. MeHAF seeks to improve health and promote collaborative, locally led efforts that can help transform communities to enable people to live healthier lives.
The Wellness Collaborative previously received MeHAF grants to pull together people across the Oxford County to identify priority health issues that the community would like to address, and to create a plan to address those health issues. The process led to a large group gathering where community members from all walks of life talked about the challenges at the root of the County not being as healthy as they would like.
The root cause unanimously chosen as a place to start to make change was isolation, disconnection and not feeling valued. Put another way, too many people in Oxford County aren’t connected with the people and resources that they need, and don’t have a sense of their worth. A series of Community Health Needs Assessment forums followed, where the priority health issues of obesity and substance use disorder were named.
Current MeHAF funding supports the work of four partners chosen by OCWC members to address the chosen health issues: the Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative, 5210 Let’s Go! Oxford County, Alan Day Community Garden, and the Community Safety Workgroup’s subcommittee on Adverse Childhood Experiences & Resilience.