If you talk to Alfred Hall, he’ll tell you that there’s a food revolution happening in Hamilton.
“The fact that we have a farmer’s market that’s 150 years old shows that there’s always been some interest in local food,” he said, referencing the Hamilton’s Historic Farmer’s Market, “but obviously, there’s even more now and there’ll be more yet.”
And Hall would know, as executive director of the nonprofit Hamilton Urban Garden Systems, which has been involved in nearly every community or school garden effort in the city in the past several years. Ever an advocate for local produce development and willing to lend a green thumb to any novice or beginners garden group, HUGS has been particularly active in recent months, helping new Hamilton schools and neighborhoods grow their own gardens and supplying restaurants like Ryan’s Tavern with their own produce from their garden in University Commerce Park.
Now, he’s working to create a 2.3-acre produce hub on South Front Street, which would eventually include an organic produce garden and greenhouse, apple orchard, food education center, community garden for the residents of the Neilan Park Apartments, and a co-operative market for the community and area farmers to sell their produce.
“HUGS having 2.3 acres in the Second Ward is really a great thing because they have no real food access down there,” said Hall, who hopes that the full development could be complete within five years. “I’m a great believer that a local food system can have a dramatic effect on the economic development of the city.
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While this may sound like a pipe dream, Hall is already hard at work on the first steps, having received $25,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to fence off the property, bring water to the property, and build the first row and hoe garden and 100 raised boxes for planting.
Bringing produce to the Second Ward
Dan Gorman – who owns the Neilan Park Apartments at 15 Hurm St. and has agreed to donate the property between the two apartment complexes to Hall for 10 years – said that he was happy that the land would be used in a positive way.
“I would love to have a big strip of stands where people are harvesting their own food and selling it, maybe making a little profit,” he said. He and Hall decided to partner on the project, with Hall as the primary grant writer and Gorman providing a letter of support and the in-kind donation of the land.
“There was no sense in us doing it separately,” Gorman said.
Many Neilan Park residents expressed interest in developing their community garden, especially since those with minimal access to transportation in the Second Ward are limited to the U.S. Market at 100 Pershing Ave. or what’s available at Open Door Food Pantry on 800 S. Front St. for food.
Eight-year resident Beverly Sneed hopes to grow yams and potatoes, and will dedicate her part of the garden to her daughter who passed away last year.
“Maybe we can call it Yjonica’s Yams,” she said, smiling.
Sneed said she hopes the garden will help the area children learn to eat better and give them something to do with their time.
“I have 18 grand kids, and I hope that it will help kids learn that vegetables can be good for them, teach them to preserve, harvest, freeze,” she said.
To fully realize the project, Hall said he’ll need to find about $400,000 in grant money and raised funds, but says it’s not a question of “if” but one of “when” it will happen.
“I’m going to do it; it’s just a matter of if it takes me two years or five years,” Hall said. He is in the process of applying for several grants through the Hamilton Community Foundation and other area sources to try and bring the larger projects online soon, but right now the ground is just starting to get plowed to allow the Neilan Park residents to start growing their plots, and HUGS to grow produce to meet the demands of the community.
Fresh produce in the schools, community
While the secured land would provide much-needed access to produce for the Second Ward residents and give HUGS the arena to make a state-of-the-art center for food education, growing, harvesting and selling, Hall said the bigger story is in the larger community.
In recent weeks, HUGS has helped the North End community, the Booker T. Washington Community Center and Crawford Woods Elementary lay down the foundations for community gardens. Five seniors from Miami University Hamilton’s Nursing Program are developing a garden at the community center in the Second Ward as part of their senior year community practicum which the children will then take over as part of their summer programming.
“We want to help develop a sense of community,” said Catherine Snader. Her classmate, Rachel Benzing, said that the idea was for the children to learn to eat and enjoy the produce they grow, and also be able to take the food home and share with their families or even sell it at a farmer’s market.
Tanya Lowry, center director for the Booker T. Washington Community Center, said she hopes the garden will teach the center’s children about healthy eating habits while promoting physical activity and community spirit.
“What we see with our youth is they don’t know how to eat; they know quick, convenient, highly processed foods,” she said. “We want them to learn how to eat well so that later on in their adult life, hopefully they can avoid some of the epidemics that are very common in low socioeconomic communities.”
Lowry also said the center’s new garden and HUGS’ forthcoming hub and garden can only benefit residents of the Second Ward.
“The nearest Kroger is 2 miles away, but it’s 2 miles away across several large roads and train tracks,” she said. “I hope these will both be positive components added to this area of our community where we need healthy things to eat and healthy things to do.”
Lauren Duris, a first-grade teacher at Crawford Woods who is leading the school garden’s development, said the garden would not only give students from low-income families access to fresh fruits and vegetables and teach them nutrition, but provide hands-on scientific opportunities for the students involved.
“It allows us to incorporate reading, writing, science and social science, and also by partnering different grades together as buddies, they can develop social skills,” she said.
Duris said she thinks there is a community push to provide healthier options citywide, whether through gardens or new markets popping up.
“I know that our lunch programs at our schools are always pushing to have healthy options. Pulling in the garden will just help them learn more about healthy eating,” she said.
Stephen T. Badin High School independently started a school vegetable garden this month, where the Service Learning class will grow tomatoes, lettuce, and more, with all produce to be donated to the Community Meal Center in Hamilton.
“This is what education is all about,” said Gina Helms, Badin’s director of campus ministry who teaches the Service Learning class. “The students are … growing vegetables that will be helpful to the meal center and in the process they are serving the community around them.”
Businesses, employers on board
Sheri and Stephen Jackson, who will open Jackson’s Market and Deli in the former Elder-Beerman building by early summer, said selling local, fresh produce from HUGS and other area farmers is part of their mission to provide healthy options to the city’s downtown.
“We found there was so much need in the Hamilton community for healthy options,” Stephen Jackson said.
Area employers are also looking to provide their workers with access to fresh produce. Tentative plans are in the works to create a delivery service for Hamilton city employees, said Lauren Gersbach, city sustainability coordinator and wellness committee member. Currently the plan is to have up to 20 city employees participate in a pilot program where from week to week they can order produce from HUGS online, and HUGS will then deliver the produce to one central city building.
“The wellness committee would be the avenue of communication,” Gersbach said. “We’re just trying to promote healthy lifestyles and give options for city employees for healthy food and exercise.”
The city of Hamilton is also partnering with Miami University’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability in order to link area farmers to city chefs, said Tim Werdmann, deputy city director.
“My interest in this project was spawned by our conversation with a successful restaurateur from the Cincinnati area who thought that Hamilton could capitalize on the farm-to-table movement due to our proximity to agricultural producers,” Werdmann wrote in an email to the Journal-News. “My thought was that we could set the table for an entrepreneurial chef to locate in Hamilton if we already had the farm-to-table infrastructure in place to allow him or her to have one less barrier to entry in this market.”
Hall said the city sees the benefit from economic development and marketing perspectives.
“It’s what I’ve been saying for five years,” Hall said. “There’s so much going on around developing a local food system in Hamilton.”