GROWING HEALTHIER HABITS: Garden Program Plants Seeds for Change

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Photos by Austin Banach

The first time I learned about where food came from was around first or second grade.

It was a marvel to a 6-year-old’s eyes when we were instructed to place seeds between damp paper towels and discovered a plant “hatching” (germinating) from them in a mere three days. After the seeds sprouted we planted them into tiny pots with soil, watered them daily and watched them grow, inch by inch. I don’t recall if those small plants ever made it outdoors, or if I saw the edible outcome after that plant fully matured, but years later I now appreciate being exposed at a young age to how everything comes from just a tiny seed. A relationship with food is what my teacher perhaps wanted me to learn, a healthier relationship beyond the cereal I ate for breakfast, the pizza I ate for lunch or the spaghetti I ate for dinner.

Today more communities and schools are taking action to not only improve children’s food sources but to teach and empower children to make healthier decisions of their own. One such program is Growing Healthy Garden Program of northern Berkshire County founded by Jennifer Munoz.

Jennifer started Growing Healthy Garden Program in 2007. The program is designed to teach people of various ages and abilities in neighborhoods, schools and other community settings about nutrition and where food comes from, and to build skill so that people can eventually grow their own food. Growing Healthy Garden Program has been part of Berkshire Organic SEEDS since 2012 and dovetails beautifully with SEEDS’ mission to get more local and organic food into school cafeterias.

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I first met Jennifer at an Earth Day celebration at Wild Oats Coop Market in Williamstown. Jennifer had set up a table with various kale seeds, small potting cups and a large tub of potting soil below. She invited children (and, in my case, former children) to come and plant seeds in the pots, spray them with water and then take them home and watch them grow.

As a reflection, Jennifer fondly recalls childhood memories with her grandparents.

“One of my earliest memories is about spending time with my pepere in Adams, helping him plant pepper seeds in his garden. I think I was about 3 years old because my hands were still chubby! I can still remember how miraculous it seemed that those hard little seeds turned into plants that were our food! Memere taught me how to cook and also how to freeze/preserve what we grew in the garden.” In addition to community speaking and events, Jennifer coordinates gardens in all four North Adams public schools (with additional technical support from Drury High School’s Off -Campus Program) as well as in eight North Adams neighborhoods. The program also has a garden at the Youth Center in Adams that is in collaboration with Plunkett Elementary and the Adams Council on Aging.

When asked what she most wants the kids to take away from the program, Jennifer replies, “Children have a natural curiosity, and welcoming them to create a garden allows them to discover loads about the natural world, about nutrition and what their bodies need to be healthy, about patience and teamwork, all kinds of things. I most want these kids to have a positive experience in the garden and be more willing to taste and eat fresh produce, both from the gardens as well as from stores where they purchase their groceries.”

Last year over 700 people participated in the Growing Healthy Garden Program with a handful of the same people in a couple of locations, which reinforces the message that healthy food is important.

For Jennifer, it is satisfying to start seeing longer-term results, with older siblings teaching younger ones “the ropes” at weekly Garden Club sessions or parents buying and eating more vegetables because their children asked for them!

The growing season isn’t the only time for Growing Healthy Garden Program. During the colder months Jennifer spends a lot of time coordinating classes on preserving, starting seeds indoors, as well as crafting baskets and bags for garden harvesting.

The future of the Growing Healthy Garden Program and other such programs relies on the support of communities and charitable funds. Jennifer admits that one of the hardest parts of her job is seeking grants and donations. With more help and funding, Jennifer would be able to focus on more program activities as well as spreading to more neighborhoods and schools in the rest of Berkshire County and beyond. “I want to share this experience with as many people as I can and train teachers and others to do the same,” she says. “I never get tired of seeing the excitement in people’s eyes when they pick and eat something they have grown themselves. Food is one of very few primary needs, and everyone should have an opportunity to learn where it comes from.”

Jennifer Munoz can be reached at RonJenMunoz@gmail.com.

Austin Banach, a native of Great Barrington, has cooked at several restaurants in the Berkshires and draws on this experience to flavor his freelance writing. AustinBanach.com

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