The tables have been set with the finest china, the picnic blankets spread in the grass, and the iced tea has been poured on a sunny July day in Berea, Kentucky. One by one, the party guests arrive: a deer named Scott and his twin Bambi; a tiger named Hobbs wearing a green scarf, even in 90-degree heat; bears in dresses; and dogs wearing sunglasses. The guest list goes on and on. With the Teddy Bear Tea Party officially underway, the pint-sized owners of these stuffed friends couldn’t be more excited.
At Glades Community Garden, the tea party serves as the latest way youth in the Berea Kids Eat summer program are learning about growing healthy foods and nourishing their bodies. The tea they’re sipping is made from herbs they’ve picked from the garden. Mint, lemon verbena, catnip, rosemary, lemongrass and honey flavor the tea; the kids snack on fresh berries, melon and zucchini bread made from the harvest of a neighboring community garden. Flowers picked from the garden earlier that day decorate the tables.
The garden offers a safe sanctuary for the kids to enjoy their mid-day picnic next to a creek. A few years ago, the corner next to the present-day site of the Glades Community Garden was the largest ambulance pickup site for opioid overdoses. The surrounding area experienced similar disruption from drug use and domestic violence. But as the Glades Christian Church reclaimed this space and the garden grew, the community saw a decrease in the negative issues.
The garden provides more than a safe space for kids to enjoy their summer mornings. It serves as an outdoor classroom, teaching kids where their food comes from, how pollinators play an important role in the process, and how to use what they harvest. It encourages creativity – kids take photos and journal about what works and what doesn’t work, and each year components of the garden evolve to implement lessons learned. One section of the garden functions as a sensory space that an 11-year-old girl designed for her brother with severe autism, so he would have a calming place to visit. The space encourages those present to smell the different plants like basil, lemon balm and mint, to hear the sounds of windchimes, to taste the veggies and herbs and to watch a colorful fan blow in the breeze.
Glades Community Garden, as well as the nearby Berea Urban Farm, also serve as business classrooms. Each month, the Berea Farmers Market hosts a special junior market during their weekly Saturday market, providing a space for kids to sell such produce as fruits, veggies and flowers harvested from Glades and the urban farm. Participants build invaluable leadership skills and confidence as they learn how to harvest the food, prepare it to sell, price it appropriately and interact with community members each month.
On Saturday morning, young vendors begin setting up their booths alongside even the most seasoned vendors, like octogenarian Bill Best, who started the Berea Farmers Market in 1974. This month, they’re selling summer’s bounty – tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, basil, apples and pears – along with their handcrafted items at booths, one which bears the appropriate name of Nature’s Gifts. The market buzzes with customers, and quickly the Lemonaders sold out of their cool drinks (which they scientifically taste-tested to find the perfect recipe the day before).
The emotion that David Cooke, founder of Grow Appalachia (the parent organization to Berea Kids Eat), feels about the program becomes apparent as he talks about its importance to the community. “Farmers markets put the power into the hands of the community to grow and nourish themselves,” he said. Cooke started Grow Appalachia 10 years ago, after seeing agricultural communities face the wellness issues of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. “These are food secure areas, but the food grown here leaves, and the food that ends up on residents’ tables comes from 1,000 miles away.”
Programs such as Grow Appalachia, Berea Kids Eat and the Berea Farmers Market help increase access to local, healthy food by focusing on community development and education, as well as local economics. Cooke explained the markets provide a space to not only sell the food that’s grown locally, but also to develop residents’ confidence that what they have is worthy of selling. “People are surprised about what they find at the market,” Cooke said. “It’s not just food, but relationships that are being grown and nurtured.”
Thanks to the support of the Walmart Foundation, the Berea Farmers Market can grow in ways that were not possible before the Increasing Access to Healthy Foods grant. The junior market now has a mobile cart that opens to display the fresh produce for sale, summer meal sites have increased, and community wellness goals have been exceeded. “The generosity and foresight of the Walmart Foundation to provide this opportunity to the community of Berea is remarkable,” Cooke said. “We are investing in kids who will in-turn invest in their community.”
Maureen Acquino is a Program Manager for NRPA.