This Georgia community went from a food desert to an oasis

Labeled a food desert by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Fairmont community in Griffin, Georgia, has historically had slim options for sourcing fresh, nutritious food nearby. But this desert is becoming an oasis of fresh fruits and vegetables thanks to a group of dedicated agencies and volunteers who have worked hard for nearly 10 years to create a thriving community garden.

The Healthy Life Community Garden — which was established in 2012 — began as a partnership between the city of Griffin, the Fairmont Community, Griffin Housing Authority, the local chapter of the NAACP, Spalding County, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office in Spalding County, and UGA’s Center for Urban Agriculture (CUA). Funding for the project comes from a yearly grant from the Griffin Housing Authority and covers the cost of supplies for operating the garden and a garden manager.

“The creation of the garden has been huge,” said Ellen Bauske, senior public service associate for the CUA on UGA’s Griffin campus, who authors the grant request each year. “In fact, the greatest fruits of our labor are not in the ground or what is in the beds, it is the marvelous way the garden has brought people together. It is truly a community garden, and I am very proud that I was able to do my little part. What is amazing is so many people have done their little part to make it what it is today.”

With many agencies and volunteers involved, the Healthy Life Community Garden has become a huge success for the community over the years. In fact, Spalding County was recognized earlier this summer with a 2021 County Excellence Award from Georgia Trend magazine and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) for the garden project. The award recognizes projects and initiatives that improve lives and address challenges in the community.

“What the county set up for us — incorporating the high-risk community and the number of agencies involved — I don’t know of any other areas nearby who have something like this,” said garden manager Patty Beckham, Agriculture and Natural Resources program assistant with Spalding County Extension.

Since the community garden’s first harvest in 2013, the garden has expanded from 20 raised beds to 36, with wheelchair-accessible beds, a pavilion, a children’s garden, greenhouse, indoor bathrooms, irrigation and crushed slate walkways. In 2020, the garden was relocated from its original location at the old Fairmont School — a historic Rosenwald School — which is being converted into an event center for the community. Nestled at the corner of N. 3rd Street and Blanton Street in Griffin, the expanded garden opened in August 2020 and provides improved space and access to host special programs for children and adults in the community.

“The programs are my favorite part,” said Beckham. “It gives us a way to teach both children and adults while gardening. I’m a retired teacher, so any opportunity to bring education into the garden is a favorite of mine.”

While COVID-19 restrictions have limited programing over the past year, Beckham said plans are underway for cooking classes, library programs, and various Extension-led programs in the near future. However, the restrictions have not prevented the community from planting a thriving crop over the spring and summer. Patrons have planted a wide seasonal variety of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, okra, corn, peas and beans. A section dedicated to fruit includes cantaloupes, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries and muscadine grapes. As summer fades to fall, the garden will transition to producing fall and winter vegetables to ensure the community has fresh, nutritious food year-round.

But for many, the garden is about more than just having access to a food source. It is an opportunity to meet and interact with members of their community while working their plots.

“This garden offers not only food, but camaraderie and a social aspect,” said Beckham. “We take the opportunity to teach what we know, but we also learn a lot too. For example, I had never seen a carrot in the ground until I began working with the garden. It is giving us a way to involve the neighborhood and the community as a whole and things are going very well.”

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