HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — In an abandoned lot off Charleston Avenue, a group of teens huddle over a table, sprinkling seeds into peat pots to get some of their fall crops started.
“I need some purple cauliflower in my life,” a teen boy joked, and the half dozen teens around the table all busted out laughing.
He may have been joking, but local authorities with the Youth Report Centers in Cabell and Kanawha counties hope the teen is right.
The teen is one of the 44 court-appointed teenagers in Huntington and 28 in Charleston under the care of the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services that have participated in a new gardening project called the Produce Pedalers.
Started back in the winter 2015, the Produce Pedalers are starting to see the actual fruits — and vegetables — of their labor.
With gardening help from folks at West Virginia State University, Produce Pedalers this summer are doing what leaders hoped they would do last year while dreaming up the program: Growing vegetables in vacant city lots, and bicycle delivering those fresh vegetables to folks in the Fairfield West community in Huntington and in Charleston’s West Side.
Along the way, they are teaching troubled youth — who are not allowed to be named in the newspaper — valuable and hands-on life lessons in agriculture, business, marketing, work ethics and in reaching out and participating in their neighborhoods.
Jason Wright, director of community based services with the West Virginia Division of Juvenile Services in Charleston, said the program is a testament to what can happen when everyone works together on a project.
“This program was put in place to help not only our youth but our community as well,” Wright said. “It helps our youth receive community service hours. During this time they learn how to plant and maintain a garden.”
During this first season in Huntington, Produce Pedalers have had an average of four to six customers a week who got fresh vegetables delivered to their homes in Huntington. There are about a dozen homes in Charleston getting fresh veggies weekly for the nominal fee of $10. The boxes have also included some herbs, such as basil and dill, along with simple recipe cards for making dishes with whatever is in the box.
One of the community members in Huntington who jumped in on the pilot community-support agriculture program is District 5 councilwoman Sandra Clements, who lives in the neighborhood.
“Sandra has been great. She has been a weekly customer and has come and talked to a group about the Fairfield community,” said Valerie Bandell, who works for WVSU and helped start the program along with fellow WVSU employee Jenny Totten. “Some of the kids had issues and concerns about riding around on a bicycle, and she talked to them about that and has been very supportive of the program.”
Clements, who just retired, said she was still working with the first basket was delivered. She said the basket’s contents were a wonderful surprise as tucked in with the vegetables was a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers from the garden.
“I wasn’t sure exactly when they were delivering the basket, so when I came home and saw the basket with the vegetables and a handful of flowers it really brightened my day,” Clements said.
Clements said she loves every aspect of the Produce Pedalers since she found out about it, came and talked to the group to ease their fears of working in her district in a vacant lot and signed up to be one of the first folks to be involved with the program.
“This is just a wonderful project,” Clements said. “The whole thing about gardening is that you get to enjoy the experience of seeing something you planted began to grow and flower and that when you pick it, it tastes pretty good … I believe in the idea of using space that is not inhabited by someone and using it and to not only have something growing in the community but teaching those young people skills they can take back home and grow their own gardens. The potential to empower the young people to be ambassadors in their neighborhoods is a wonderful thing.”
Wright said they see Produce Pedalers as a way for the kids to give back and fill a needed niche in the communities which have many elderly people who may have mobility issues.
“Statistics have shown that residents have low level access to fresh groceries, and most of these residents are classified as low-income households,” Wright said. “Some of these residents don’t have vehicles, which makes getting to a grocery store difficult. Produce Pedalers can help our community by delivering the produce our students grow to their doors, making fresh produce more accessible.”
Bandell said they got the program started thanks to some seed money from a mini grant from Try This West Virginia, a group which has been handing out mini grants to people around the state and working to make healthier communities with a myriad of grassroots initiatives.
At the Charleston Avenue site, where there are 15 four-foot-wide-by-16-foot-long raised beds, Bandell leads the group in planting broccoli, cauliflower, peas, lettuce, spinach and beets for fall, while they are still harvesting tomatoes, peppers, squash, herbs and, until recently, beans from the garden, which will soon have pumpkins too.
“We don’t have to plant all of these seeds today. Just pick any of these seeds that strike your fancy,” Bandell tells the students.
Bandell said thanks to the Produce Pedalers partners — from WVSU and the Youth Report Centers to HURA, which donated the land, and the police departments which gave the kids bicycle safety courses — the program seems to be working.
“We are pretty excited that the growing season is going OK,” Bandell said. “I was nervous. I mean it all looked really good on paper, but in actuality we wondered how it was going to pan out. It is definitely not exactly how it went on paper, but still good. It looks like it is going to be year around, and we are going to try to keep it going as long as all the partners are still on board.”
Clements said she already has seen a positive impact with not only that abandoned lot being used for gardening but she thinks it has inspired some others to grow gardens or produce in the neighborhood too.
And she has often shared the bounty of her baskets as well with neighbors.
“One of the good things is that in the baskets is more good things than I can eat, so I share it with the neighbors, and I have been freezing some of the vegetables to make soup for the winter,” Clements said.
After the late fall frosts take out the last of the crops, Bandell said they will head back indoors and build upon what they started last October when they got the Try This West Virginia mini-grant and began shaping the program. They’ll meet with the teens indoors once a week with classes and planning the garden, which in Huntington is on land owned by the HURA.
During last winter, Totten and Bandell taught the students in weekly classes on Wednesday about garden planning, basic plant biology, marketing and business modeling. While the program constantly has new kids coming in and also kids who are leaving, Bandell said they are trying to instill a base knowledge into all of the students to keep Produce Pedalers growing organically and slowly rolling forward.
“I am glad it is kind of small for the first season so we could figure out how it would work,” Bandell said. “We hope to have about 15 next year. We are also hoping to have the SNAP benefits for next year and hope that will be a big plus for next year for getting more community members. We don’t want to grow it in the community, and take it out of the community. … we want it to stay here to be accessible to people here and affordable for people here. If we can accommodate for SNAP, then I think it opens it up to that many more people, and I mean it comes to your doorstep on a bike, so transportation is not an issue if you can’t get out.”
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com