OTTUMWA — Ideas for community gardens have taken root.
Nearly 30 people interested in community gardens, farmers' markets and fresh-food projects gathered at the United Way of Wapello County Monday morning to brainstorm ideas for projects focused on food availability and sustainability in the area.
Three ideas stuck: a senior program, revamping vacant city lots as community gardens and reviving old raised beds in the industrial park north of town.
The meeting was the first of several to focus on solving food insecurity, said UWWC President and CEO Desiree Johnson, who noted that 14.8 percent of Wapello County residents are food insecure and 24 percent of local children are food insecure.
"By coming together as a community and working on this, we'll make our community a healthier place, a much more productive place and more cohesive," she said.
Several ways to battle hunger were thrown on the table. While Chuck Bates could not attend the meeting, he gave the group a starting point: raised beds at the industrial park.
"He had a plot up north in the industrial park that he [maintained] for three years," said UWWC community impact associate Marie Zoromski. "It's currently still fenced in, and there are hoses underground. He did raised beds, but they're disintegrated now."
Wapello County's community transformation grant now has to take a new direction since Ottumwa was not awarded a Blue Zones designation.
"We have several lots that are abandoned, and I think the city is interested in donating those for a community garden project," said Joni Elder, the grant's program director. "The conversation has snowballed since it began three days ago."
Jody Gates, city director of health, inspections and solid waste, said several years ago she worked with a faith-based group on a community garden project as well as the parks department to see that water be installed in those areas on the west end of town.
"Since that time, most of the lots have been transferred to someone else," Gates said. "But we have others scattered around the city. There are a couple in the 1700 block of West Main [Street], and we have some tucked away behind a stand of trees on North Clay Street. There are all kinds of properties the city has held for a long time, but they haven't been able to sell them for any particular use."
In the past, Marshall Dias has asked the city about purchasing vacant lots for community gardens, though his idea stemmed from a beautification standpoint rather than food insecurity.
"This is a way of finding an alternative use for those empty lots the city is spending a tremendous amount of money on maintaining," Dias said. "We don't do enough of that old-fashioned, Mother Earth, 'get your hands dirty' kind of stuff."
Ottumwa Community Outreach Ministry director Yvonne Baldwin-Greene said community gardens have been on her brain for the past couple of years.
"This is something that could both teach the clients we serve as well as build a supplement for more nutritious meals," she said. "The people we're serving could learn how to garden, then do it in their own backyards."
Several others came with the idea of helping feed Wapello County seniors.
"I have a vision that we could have a large garden project at the airport involving Job Corps and the Master Gardeners of Wapello County," said Ron Brickey, Food Bank of Southern Iowa board member.
Mary Lou Mason said area seniors are "deprived" since there are few places for them to get fresh produce.
The food bank's executive director, Neal Abbott, suggested that some of the food products that result from community gardens could be distributed to low-income persons, whether through the food bank, church kitchens or area pantries.
ISU Extension Wapello County horticulture program assistant Stacie Latham and family nutrition and health program specialist Barb Anderson said their goal is to incorporate education into the gardens.
"Hopefully our project can serve as an outlet for all the great food products that are going to grow, as well as being an education space," said Heather Ware, director of the new Market on Main that is slated to open in the spring. "We can show the community how to put these topics into action in their own lives."
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist Lori Altheide said her job is to "help people help the land."
One way to do this is through EQIP, or Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which is available to all eligible ag producers to help them create seasonal high tunnels. The tunnels act as a greenhouse to extend the growing season.
The next garden project meeting will be held at 10 a.m. April 15 at the United Way of Wapello County, 224 E. Second St.