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Education

Urban Garden Initiative finds fertile ground in effort to attack food deserts

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Volunteers work to build a Urban Garden Initiative outdoor classroom at the Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington

A Delaware high school student is seeing a project she started a couple of years ago take root in Wilmington and beyond.

It’s called The Urban Garden Initiative, and it’s the brainchild of Newark Charter School senior Megan Chen.

Delaware Public Media contributor Larry Nagengast introduces to Chen and her project.

Megan Chen may be only a senior at the Newark Charter School but she has already planted many seeds.

Now she’s watching them grow – in Wilmington and around the world.

Chen is the founder of The Urban Garden Initiative, a nonprofit organization she created nearly two years ago after she learned that many cities, Wilmington included, are “food deserts,” places where it is difficult to buy affordable or good-quality fresh food.

Chen, who says she was “always passionate about the environment and gardening – since I was really young,” decided to address the issue by starting small, in more ways than one: by working with an even younger generation, and by showing these elementary and middle school students the basics of container gardening – how growing even a couple of plants in a pot on the back porch could help create healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.

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Credit Photo courtesy of Megan Chen
Newark Charter School senior Megan Chen created the Urban Garden Initiative.

Chen’s project got off to a promising start, as she reached out to several schools in Wilmington a year ago, bringing container garden kits to the schools, showing students how to care for their plants and explaining the linkage between gardening and good nutrition. In the spring, she had planned to expand the program into schools in suburban New Castle County.

Her initiative drew sudden recognition – including selection of The Urban Garden Initiative in January as a  daily featured project by the Points of Light Foundation, the volunteer support organization created a year after President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” message in his 1989 inaugural address.

“Even if you’re young, you have the power to make change in your community,” Chen says.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Chen had to pivot. With schools shut down, she turned her attention to places where city youngsters spend their out-of-school time: Boys & Girls Clubs and community centers.

Because she understood that food deserts are an issue nationally, even globally, Chen took a big step to expand her reach – securing a $10,000 Google grant to use the program’s website to help launch affiliates in other communities. The initiative now has more than 40 spinoff chapters spread among at least 16 states and eight countries, including India and the Philippines.

"Even if you're young, you have the power to make change in your community." - Megan Chen, Urban Garden Initiative.

“We’re trying not to micromanage their activities,” she says, but each chapter must have a high school or college student as its leader, have some sort of garden, teach workshops and engage in environmental projects in their community.

Chen wants the national and international networks to grow, extending educational programming to improve awareness of environmental issues. “Slowly but surely, it will have an effect,” she says.

Locally, she says, “we’re working on community outreach and partnering with a lot of organizations.” The initiative’s website features and extensive list of partners, including the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Delaware Center for Horticulture, Newark Natural Foods, Wilmington Green Box, the University of Delaware, the New Castle County Conservation District, the Delaware Nature Society, West Side Grows Together and the Delaware Community Foundation.

Funding for the initiative – roughly $15,000 in the past year – comes from a variety of sources, including the Delaware Community Foundation, the New Castle County Conservation District, fundraising events and private donors, both individual and corporate, Chen says.

Schools participating in the program, according to the website, include Bayard and Bancroft in Wilmington, Shue-Medill Middle School near Newark, Odyssey Charter and Las Americas Aspira Academy.

The program’s approach is easy to understand: find an interested school, identify a teacher to serve as the host, bring the necessary materials to the school (a 5-gallon container, soil, fertilizer and seeds or seedlings) and present two workshops, one in the fall and one in the spring. Each session lasts 45 minutes to an hour, with time at the end for hands-on planting. Fall plantings include cool weather vegetables like peas, lettuce and radish. In the spring, it’s tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers and tomatillos. Participants also receive a worksheet with instructions on how to care for their plants and start their own gardens.

With many school buildings closed and most students in Delaware now learning from home, Chen isn’t sure how many schools the program will be able to visit this year. “It’s wait and see,” she says, with the most likely arrangement being a drop-off of the gardening materials coupled with a workshop delivered virtually through the Zoom platform.

She’s exploring a variety of instructional options, including the possibility of developing something like a six-week program that would cover environmental and nutrition topics in addition to gardening techniques.

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Credit Photo courtesy of Megan Chen
Urban Garden Initiative planting boxes ready for use at the H. Fletcher Brown Boys & Girls Club in Wilmington.

Other organizations that have linked up with the initiative include West Side Grows Together, the H. Fletcher Brown and Clarence Fraim Boys & Girls Clubs and the Kingswood Community Center, all in Wilmington.

For West Side Grows Together, an offshoot of the West End Neighborhood House, Chen put together a gardening workshop for about 30 teens and adults, including groups affiliated with St. Francis Hospital and the Latin American Community Center. “It’s a great idea, giving people the capacity to grow food for themselves,” says Claire Hamilton, West Side’s healthy neighborhoods manager.

At the Boys & Girls Clubs, the program generally followed the format set up for school programs.

At Kingswood, The Urban Garden Initiative is taking a different approach. In early September, Chen and a team of volunteers assembled several picnic tables and set up a canopied area behind the center, adjacent to its existing community garden, says Rich Parson, health, wellness and safety coordinator for REACH Riverside, the revitalization project for the area north of the Brandywine and east of Northeast Boulevard that has Kingswood as its hub.

“We had a flourishing garden, but we needed a space for a learning facility,” Parson says. Kingswood’s main gardener, Jessica Wescott, helped Chen prepare grant applications to fund the project, and then Chen ordered the materials and coordinated the assembly.

The outdoor classroom, Parson says, will actually benefit three different groups: teens, preschoolers and senior citizens.

He says that The Urban Garden Initiative will be teaching gardening and wellness classes to teens at The Warehouse, the new youth center that REACH Riverside recently opened a few blocks south of Kingswood. The preschoolers are enrolled in Kingswood’s early learning academy and senior citizens are members of the Jimmy Jenkins Senior Center, also based at Kingswood.

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Credit Photo courtesy of Megan Chen
Megan Chen and the Urban Garden Initiative created and outdoor classroom space at the Kingswood Community Center in Wilmington's Riverside neighborhood.

“It’s a great idea to teach kids how to grow vegetables. You’ll never go hungry if you learn how to grow your own,” Parson says.

The initiative is an ideal fit for the Riverside community, Parson says, because the area typifies an urban “food desert.”

“There are no grocery stores here, but it seems like there’s a liquor store on every corner. We’ve got a Popeye’s, a couple of Dollar Stores, but no real grocers,” he says. “It’s important to offer healthy nutrition options.”

With Riverside starting its redevelopment, “you have to think about the wellness of the community,” Parson says. “If the residents are not eating well, it’s hard to teach them healthy habits.”

Chen began making some of the contacts she needed to get The Urban Garden Initiative started two years ago, while she participated in Dual School, a project-based learning program the brings a dozen or so students from several high schools together for a semester of mentoring and guidance as they try to turn their passions into reality. At the time, gardening wasn’t Chen’s top priority, says Zack Jones, Dual School’s director.

"It's a great idea to teach kids how to grow vegetables. You'll never go hungry if you learn how to grow your own." - Rich Parson, health, wellness and safety coordinator for REACH Riverside.

“Her project was writing a children’s book, ‘Finding Tiger,’” Jones says. The book, centered around a young tiger who has no sense of self identity, presents the challenges of implicit biases and stereotyping through a narrative that appeals to students in the elementary grades. (It is available through online sites like Amazon, Kindle and Barnes & Noble.)

After Chen finished the book, she visited schools to promote it. Those sessions gave her more confidence in making her own presentations and increased her awareness of how many urban youths were victimized by living in food deserts. That summer, while working at Dual School as an intern, she mentored younger students and felt a revived commitment to addressing nutritional and environmental issues. Tackling the garden project became the obvious step forward.

“She’s really plugged in. She’s done a really good job of finding opportunities and expanding her network,” Jones says.

One of Chen’s key concerns now is developing a youth executive committee for the initiative, not only to spread responsibilities as the program grows but also to ensure that there is a structure in place for when she heads off to college next year. She’s not sure yet where she will be applying, but she’s looking for a place that offers an opportunity to focus on three areas: business entrepreneurship, environmental science and public policy.

“We want to continue to grow, to build momentum,” she says. “It’s great to get youth more involved and to see gardens where you’re not used to seeing them.”