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Students help plant produce at the Prospect Community Garden, located at Prospect Elementary School. 

Editor's note: This story is part of a series addressing the issue of food insecurity in Richland County. The series will continue throughout 2017 and feature interviews with those working to mitigate the problem and the obstacles they encounter.

MANSFIELD -- Overgrown, yet full of potential. That was the state of a butterfly garden at Prospect Elementary School when Amy Burns, occupational therapist at Prospect, happened upon it with an idea. 

The garden was planted on the east side of school grounds five or six years ago as an earth stewardship project spearheaded by teacher Jennifer Jarvis and supported by members of the community. Growing mostly ornamentals, the garden was cared for primarily by students and teachers, but ultimately became a target for vandalism.

Without community involvement to ensure the long term care of the garden, it became neglected, according to Burns. 

Seeing the potential of this garden, Burns, who has a degree in agriculture with a major in landscape horticulture from The Ohio State University, submitted an application to the Mansfield YMCA for grant funds to revitalize the butterfly bed and add vegetable beds in order to provide fresh produce to students and families in the area. 

She was able to secure funding through the Pioneering Healthier Communities: Growing Healthy Children initiative, enabling the addition of two four-by-four-foot beds and one four-by-16-foot bed. 

"The vegetables we grew included beets, parsley, carrots, radishes, pumpkins, green beans, Roma and Sweet 100 Tomatoes, cucumbers, cilantro, sweet basil, candy onions, kale, red, green, and hot peppers which were shared with families near the school and at lunch in the cafeteria," Burns said. "Some things were taken to the North End Farmers' Market."

The North End Community Improvement Collaborative and Richland Public Health both served as valuable resources in helping get the project underway.  

Karyl Price, Creating Healthy Communities Project Coordinator with Richland Public Health, said the garden was a hit.

"The kids made little markers for the plants," Price said. "They were adorable."

Students helped with weeding and watering, preparing the beds, and planting seeds. One group of second graders even made a worm farm and added it to the garden. 

Burns pointed out that some children think tomatoes are sourced from cans or jars, or come in the form of ketchup and tomato sauce, so this educational gardening experience allowed them to see with their own eyes where fresh produce actually comes from. 

Over the summer, local residents, including youth, joined Burns at the garden to do some work. 

"There were lots of kids in the neighborhood that came over and helped," she said. "When people see you out in the garden, they get curious, especially children."

Prospect Elementary School, which serves students in kindergarten through third grade, isn't the only Richland County school to have a community garden. Other schools, including Spanish Immersion School, Hedges Campus, Foundation Academy of Mansfield, Stingel Elementary School and Western Elementary School also have gardens. To see a list of community gardens in the area, visit the NECIC website

Food desert, food swamp

From the get-go, the goal of the Prospect Community Garden has been to inspire people to become stewards of the environment and take ownership of their community and physical health.

The hope is to expand over time and possibly offer classes for families on starting and maintaining home gardens, nutrition, cooking and eating healthy on a budget.

As noted in Burns' gardening grant application, the area where Prospect is located (the southeast side of Mansfield) can be described as both a food desert and a food swamp.

A food desert is defined as an urban area with limited access to fresh foods, especially produce. A food swamp is defined as an area with multiple fast food options that offer “empty calories” and little in the way of nutrition.

The area took a hit when Geyer's Fresh Foods closed in August last year, making the next closest full-service grocery store Kroger Marketplace on Lexington Avenue, which is approximately 2.6 miles away from the school, according to Google Maps.

Further, Prospect Elementary School ranks amongst the highest in the county for free or reduced price lunch rates at 95.63 percent. According to October 2016 data from the Ohio Department of Education, 215 students at Prospect Elementary School received free lunches, and another four received reduced price lunches during the 2016-2017 school year. 

An applicant is considered eligible for free meal benefits if the household income is at or less than 130 percent of the United States Department of Agriculture established poverty guidelines or if the student receives food stamps or Ohio Works First benefits.

For a household of four, 130 percent of the poverty level is $2,633 in gross monthly income, according to the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA. 

An applicant is considered eligible for reduced price meal benefits if the household income is at or less than 185 percent of the USDA established poverty guidelines.

"Their only meal all day may be what they get here at school -- their free or reduced price lunch," Burns said.

For reference, below is an infographic showing the percentage of Richland County high school students on free or reduced price lunches during the 2016-2017 school year. Note: Lucas High School includes grades eight through 12.

Child food insecurity

Data from Feeding America shows that 13.1 million U.S. children lived in food-insecure households in 2015.

Richland County had a 24.1 percent child food insecurity rate that same year, according to Feeding America. 

Burns regularly sees how detrimental the impact that poor/inadequate nutrition can have on the overall health and wellbeing of students.

Children suffering from food insecurity are more likely to experience social, behavioral or health-related problems than those who don't. 

"How can they solve what two plus two equals when all they can think about is when their next meal will be," said Candace Harrell, teaching garden coordinator with NECIC.

Growing hope

Burns has ideas that would take the Prospect Community Garden to the next level and make it even more community-focused.

She discussed the idea of having the garden's harvest sold at local convenience stores or having the students sell the produce after school to teach them about entrepreneurship.

A local church offers a free community meal once a month -- perhaps the produce could be incorporated in their meals, she said.

Burns would like to see more local youth, especially teenagers, help out at the garden, which could give them ideas/interest for future career paths.

"There's something about getting your hands dirty in the garden and seeing something grow -- it gives you a rush," Burns said.

Not only that but gardening can aid students who may struggle academically.

"It's so great for students who struggle concentrating on one thing," Harrell said. "In the garden you can dart from place to place, but you're still getting everything done."

Caring for a garden also exposes participants to healthy physical activity -- something Burns is also a strong advocate for.

"It's not just about healthy food, but access to exercise," she said. "To me, they go hand in hand. Teaching lifelong healthy habits includes exercise and diet."

Burns hopes the community garden is something local residents can take pride in.

"If you're going to have a community garden, that means it belongs to the community," she said.

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Thrive Reporter

Thrive reporter. Graduate of Ontario High School and Ohio State Mansfield. Wife. Mom. Dog lover. Fitness enthusiast. Plant collector. Mac and cheese consumer.