The Growing Community Project (GCP) works with stakeholders to build community gardens in order to increase food security in Helena, Montana, as well as to strengthen their neighborhoods. GCP aims to work with low-income populations, giving them gardening space and teaching them gardening skills so that they may take control of the quality of food they and their families consume. Currently, GCP manages five gardens and over 60 gardeners in Helena. Almost half of the gardeners stated in 2009 that their community garden plot allowed them to save $15.00/week on food. GCP is also committed to provide free gardening education, such as a Volunteer for Veggies program, where anyone can offer their time tending to community beds in exchange for produce. In 2009, the program donated 1,687 pounds of produce to the local food bank and logged over 90 hours of volunteer work.
The genesis for GCP came from a meeting of WIC participants who identified a desire to grow their own fruits and vegetables as a way to better control the quality of food they and their children consumed. With this information, two AmeriCorps VISTAs began forming GCP, and one of the first steps for this VISTA project was to do a community assessment. From the assessment, the VISTAs identified key stakeholders and developed a steering committee of community members to guide the activities of the project. With input from the steering committee, other partner organizations were identified and a mission statement was created.
GCP aims to build community gardens within walking distance of every neighborhood in Helena, MT, based on community support that brings together diverse neighborhoods forming a community while addressing food security issues. GCP believes everyone should have access to healthy, affordable food. They plan to cultivate community partnerships, involving neighborhoods in every aspect of the process and empowering low-income populations to get involved in both the planning and implementation of the gardens. The mission for GCP was created by a steering committee for the project, which is comprised of 18 community members from different walks of life who represent multiple partner organizations and target populations.
The GCP steering committee and staff identified local partners and recruited stakeholders to begin building community gardens in neighborhoods that desired them. This involved doing community assessments of each neighborhood, organizing neighborhood meetings, designing the gardens with community input, soliciting donations and discounts from locally owned businesses, and organizing volunteer work days to build the gardens. As the visibility of the GCP has grown, more groups have asked for help starting community gardens in their neighborhoods. With GCP guidance, and by utilizing their volunteer supporters and friends to design, fundraise, and build the garden, these new projects have become a reality.
At the end of the growing season, the GCP asks all gardeners to fill out a survey. The results determine if they are reaching their target population and if their efforts are making a difference in people’s food security and gardening knowledge. The results also help focus their efforts on certain neighborhoods for future gardens, as well as fine tune their education program to fit the needs of community members.
The GCP is steered by a group of 18 community members who have large stakes in the success of the program. The project is coordinated by a staff member who helps organize work days, volunteers, donations, education programs, and garden managers. They aim to get the community actively involved in the GCP’s work so they become stakeholders in the project, therefore working to maintain and increase the GCP’s activities throughout Helena, MT.
The Helena community has become more aware of food security issues through the work of GCP, which includes building gardens within walking distance of neighborhoods, providing free gardening classes and resources, and various educational events. The activities of GCP are well publicized in the local media, and the placement of the current community gardens has increased the visibility of gardening within Helena. The impact of GCP is evidenced by regular high attendance at gardening classes, wait lists for all the gardens, and consistent volunteers for work days.