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Garden goal: Produce a healthier community

South Boston News / February 19, 2018
If you visit the Southern Virginia Botanical Gardens at South Boston’s Edmunds Park this spring, you’ll find the “Healthy Harvest Community Garden,” a 30’ x 100’ strip of land designed to address the top two health issues in Halifax County: diabetes and heart disease.

At a presentation of Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital’s 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment, a spark of an idea tugged at marketing and public relations manager Faith O’Neil. One of the purposes of the CHNA is to identify Halifax County’s top four health concerns and highlight steps taken to address them.

The 2016 report listed “heart disease” and “diabetes” as the top two health issues in the county. “We (Sentara) already have clinical programs in place — but how do we show that we are really doing something about it — and the bottom line for both of those diseases is diet,” she said.

She ran the idea of a community garden past Debbie Knight, Sentara grants administrator, who embraced the concept. Knight and O’Neil then ran the idea past Stewart Nelson, Sentara CFO, who also gave it thumbs-up.

Propelled by enthusiasm and Sentara’s pledge of support for the project, O’Neil’s vision became a plan, and the plan turned into a reality. Carol Nelson, master gardener and treasurer for the SVBG, assumed the leadership position of the steering committee, a group of community stakeholders committed to building and launching a successful project.

In addition to Nelson serving as chairman, O’Neil as secretary and Stuart Nelson as finance liaison, steering committee members include Knight; Ben Capozzi, manager of the South Boston farmers market; Darnell Abbott of Abbott Farm Supply; Bill McCaleb, extension agent for the Halifax County Virginia Cooperative Extension; Kimley Blanks, agricultural marketing director and management assistant for Halifax County; Jonathan Chandler, Southern Virginia Botanical Garden president and Halifax County High School teacher; Agnes Gregory, master gardener; Andy Stader, Optimum Health; Maria Traynham, family nutrition assistant at the Extension Office; and Bonita Nelson, executive director with Do Something in Halifax County.

Using a 1/3-acre plot, the goal is to supplement existing food bank programs in Halifax County by growing more than 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and potatoes.

Although those living close to South Boston or Halifax have easy access to local farmers markets, people living in more out-of-the-way areas often have no way to find fresh produce unless they grow it themselves.

“It is truly amazing how many of our residents live in low-access food areas,” O’Neil said.

In addition to providing thousands of pounds of fresh produce, O’Neil hopes that the garden will become a field trip destination where children can learn how vegetables are grown.

Before the hard work began, several members of the steering committee visited community gardens already up and running, in Clarksville, Danville, and Chesapeake. Clarksville’s community garden is closest in size and output to what the committee envisioned for Halifax County.

It its first year, Clarksville produced 2,000 pounds of fresh produce, followed by 3,000 pounds and then 3,500 pounds – all on a quarter-acre plot.

Volunteers will plant, harvest, prepare, and transport the garden’s bounty. Nelson will help coordinate delivery to Halifax County’s five food pantries, who already have lists of those in need.

Chandler plans to involve his high school agriculture students, who will be able to earn scholarship money for a commitment of a specific number of hours. O’Neil hopes that church and other civic groups will also choose to participate.

Sentara provided initial funding with Community Benefit dollars through its Community Partnership program. Generous donations have been made by Abbotts Farm Supply, and the Town of South Boston and the Halifax County administration have given us their full support, said O’Neil and Nelson.

When asked what her measure of success was for the project, O’Neill quipped, “If vegetables grow out of the ground this first year — it’s a success!”

Check out their Facebook page. In addition, proceeds from the 2018 South Boston Strawberry Festival will benefit the garden.

If you would like to help plant or harvest the crops or help maintain the garden, make plans to attend a community information meeting Tuesday, March 20 at 6 p.m. at the Washington Coleman Community Center.

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This activity comes as a surprise to me. I among many others I know would have been very interested in this process. I guess because Sentara is a private organization, the public was neither aware of this activity nor the gathering of Steering Committee members. Nevertheless, Edmunds Park is public; I think that the public should have been more involved in this process. For example, who decided that existing food banks should be supplemented by tomatoes, cucumber, beans and potatoes? Why not more foods typical to the lower-income regional diet: kale, carrots, onions, cabbage, corn? Further, will the public be allowed to forage the garden? Otherwise is the public allowed to forage Edmunds Park in general? And, asked sadly, have more surveillance "Smile You're on Camera" signs been posted? Are there indeed cameras?

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