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Community gardens harvest better health outcomes

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On an overcast Friday in October, four women walked out of a kitchen at the future site of the Westwood Food Cooperative in southwest Denver, talking and laughing. Matilde Garcia, their teacher, closed up the kitchen behind them. The class had produced trays of drying squash, which Garcia planned to gather over the weekend.

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Just a few years ago, you wouldn’t have found Garcia teaching about healthy eating.

When she was a child, Garcia lived on a farm in Mexico where her father grew chilies, tomatoes, peanuts, corn and squash. As a young adult in Denver, however, Garcia rarely ate vegetables. The food that was most appealing and easiest to come by was Cheetos, soda or candy.

“I [am not] rich, but I can buy that stuff,” she said.

In Westwood, a neighborhood in southwest Denver where the future food co-op is located, Garcia wasn’t alone. Westwood is home to some 17,000 people, 80 percent of whom are Latino. It is also a food desert – defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as a non-rural area where 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the population reside more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

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Since 2007, the local nonprofit Re:Vision has attempted to fill that void by helping Westwood residents access healthier food. Along with access to mass transit and health services, access to healthy food is among the infrastructural factors proven to positively influence health outcomes.

Eric Kornacki, now Re:Vision’s CEO, and Joseph Teipel, now its director of operations, started planting and maintaining gardens in Westwood backyards in 2009. Families would agree to have Re:Vision’s staff build raised beds and plant food, and they’d be visited by staff over the course of the year to help maintain the garden so that they had fresh vegetables to eat.

The organization has built gardens for more than 450 families. It also offers classes on cooking and nutrition. A market with fresh foods and vegetables is open several days a week and plans to open a co-operatively owned grocery store are in full swing.

In Westwood, the average lifespan of residents is 12 years less than in surrounding areas. More than a third of residents are obese, and the neighborhood has a higher rate of childhood obesity than the city as a whole. Forty-four percent of the area’s children live in poverty, which is tied to higher rates of other chronic diseases later in life.

Many of the neighborhood’s residents are undocumented immigrants, which means they don’t have access to health insurance. Residents often avoid seeing doctors until it’s absolutely necessary. And the stress of living with the possibility or reality of deportation also takes a toll.

Kornacki said it’s important to acknowledge all of the dynamics at play instead of assuming people just need more education about how to eat healthfully. “There are other systems that are barriers to making decisions. You come here and can’t find healthy food.”

He said that Re:Vision’s place in the community has evolved over time. In their second year of building gardens, for instance, the organization started recruiting employees from the neighborhood. They didn’t want to be “two white guys saying, ‘Do you want a vegetable garden?’”

And while there was initially talk of expanding Re:Vision’s work to other locations, Kornacki said the organization is now focused on growing deeper relationships and expanding in Westwood.

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“Everything’s rooted in community, it’s rooted in place,” he said. “What we do has its roots in agriculture, but it’s broader than that. Being resident-led is so crucial.”

For Garcia, getting involved with Re:Vision changed more than the layout of her backyard. It wasn’t until Garcia noticed that her daughter was gaining weight that she and her sister, with whom she lives, decided to check out Re:Vision.

At first, Garcia wasn’t convinced. The garden seemed like a lot of work, and her memories of living on a farm were not all positive. But her sister convinced her it was worth a try. And over time, she found that she and her children got satisfaction from the garden.

Now Garcia is one of three full-time “promotoras” working at Re:Vision. Promotoras are local residents trained to do outreach in their communities on urban gardens and healthy living. In addition to helping families grow their own food, Garcia also registers her neighbors for food assistance. (In Colorado, just 57 percent of the eligible population is enrolled in the food assistance program known as SNAP— far below the national average of 75 percent.)

In her healthy cooking classes, she tries to make familiar foods healthy rather than introducing entirely new cuisines. A popular recipe involves making enchiladas with more shredded vegetables and less cheese.

At home, the five children in Garcia’s household all have sections of the garden to tend and plant their favorite vegetables. And she sees her own growing confidence rubbing off on her children, especially her youngest daughter. “When they were small, they played alone,” she said. “Now, I look and she has six [children] following her around.”

That’s the kind of change that’s harder to measure, Kornacki said. “What we’re doing might have roots in agriculture, but it’s broader than that,” he said. “The more we can have Matilde and other residents at the forefront of sharing their experiences, being the ones to implement and own the change, the more successful we’ll be in advancing health equity.”

– Jackie Zubrzycki

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