by Karyn Knecht
This piece was also published in the Floyd County Times.
For two women in Hazard, Kentucky, creating community gardens started as a New Years resolution. Jenny Williams, an English professor, was hosting a New Years party when she voiced her desire for community gardens in Hazard.
That’s when Aly Cooper, a VISTA for the Kentucky Mountain Health Alliance, said, “Let’s just do it.”
And they did.
Two years later, they’ve harvested about 750 pounds of food. That produce has been donated to several local organizations: Corner Haven Crisis Shelter, Little Flower Clinic, Journey Church’s Food Pantry, STARLand Academy, and New Beginnings Learning Center.
A local non-profit, Pathfinders of Perry County, funds the project. As the Chair of the Board, Williams believes gardening and nutrition education are crucial to improving the region.
“I’ve tried to be a food advocate, an advocate for people growing their own food, for money or health. And I fell into that, that’s not why I started. I just like food. I like to cook. As I became more aware of what was going on in our region, I felt more strongly about it,” said Williams.
“The whole time I’ve been teaching at the college – for 21 years now – I have always had my students write about food, talk about food, and read about food.”
During class discussions, Williams noticed a trend among her students. “I’ll ask them, who here knows where your food came from? Who has a garden? And at first, more than half the students would raise their hands and say, ‘Well, my Granny has a garden, or my Papaw has a garden.’” Over the years, those numbers started to drop.
Now, Williams’ students are growing food out of necessity. And more of them wish they knew how.
Education has become a major piece of the community gardens project in Hazard. Williams and Cooper work with students at STARLand Academy, an afterschool program for children who are academically at-risk, to get hands on experience growing and cooking their own food. Caring for the community gardens has become a service project for the kids.
“One day we did ‘Random Acts of Weeding’ where we went downtown and weeded the beds. They’re really invested in the garden. They have fun out there,” said Williams.
“To see the pride that ensues from them being able to see how something can go from in the ground, into the kitchen, on to the plate, to see this is how food is actually created. That is a full-circle experience for them. That’s where change takes place is seeing: this is how we are meant to eat,” added Cooper.
Williams had always read that children who grow their own food are more willing to experiment with new flavors. It wasn’t until she witnessed it herself that she understood how powerful that relationship could be.
“Until you see some picky child put a leaf of spicy mustard in his or her mouth and chew it up, because they planted the seeds themselves – it’s very humbling and it’s really inspirational and it’s worth every single thing. It’s worth every blown off student paper that I don’t grade or night that I stay awake or all the money that I spend on my own to do a cooking class. It’s completely worth it if one of those kids grows up with a better attitude about food.”
What’s the next project for these women? Tackling food access issues.
“If you live downtown, or if you live anywhere, you can’t get food. Even if you can afford to buy fresh produce, you can’t get it here. My aim is to figure out a way to have gardens in every public housing project,” said Williams.
Cooper added, “I think the main issue is convenience food right now. If we could connect people more to their food source, and help them understand what’s going on with food processing, it could directly affect heart disease. It’s all about getting people back in the kitchen.”
To get involved with community gardens in Hazard, contact Jenny Williams at jenny.williams(at)kctcs.edu.