This Hamilton group does urban gardening to help those in need. Here’s how it’s growing.

A 7-year-old Hamilton organization that grows vegetables and fruits and distributes them to those in need is growing and looking for people who want to harvest their own food.

Hamilton Urban Garden Systems, known as HUGS, occupies 2.3 acres of land at 545 Front St. in Hamilton’s Riverview neighborhood, more commonly known as the Second Ward, near low-income housing projects.

That’s an ideal location because a big part of HUGS’ goal is to create a community that eats healthier foods, said Michelle Merrett, a board member who recently retired as a federal probation officer.

“Our aim is to provide mentoring to residents, to provide gardening plots to them, to provide educational tools to help them learn about gardening and healthy eating, as well as to grow vegetables and distribute them to under-served populations in our communities,” Merrett said.

In the Riverview area, she said, 72.6 percent of residents are non-white, 15 percent are unemployed, 33.8 percent of households have incomes less than $15,000 per year, and 76.8 of households rent their homes.

“There’s no direct access to fruits and vegetables, and the closest grocery store is well over half a mile a way, and limited transportation makes it hard for residents in that community to be able to get to grocery stores,” she said.

HUGS volunteers installed a 30-by-70-foot “hoop house” greenhouse on the property in August. They planted their first crop in January, “and we’ve harvested two or three times now,” Merrett said. “The first donation we gave to the Community Meal Center.”

The CMC program serves the hungry on various evenings of the week.

This past week, HUGS donated vegetables to Ross High School students’ JEE Foods. That award-winning organization accepts foods from various sources, packages them, and provides them to the needy.

“We are working with them now,” Merrett said. “We’re going to grow greens for them, and share it with them.”

Collards, lettuce and spinach and radishes are growing in the hoop house.

Outside, there are dozens of raised garden beds, some with deteriorating wooden frames that will be replaced through a $2,500 Hamilton 17Strong grant that is distributed among city neighborhoods.

HUGS plans to add 20 raised garden beds this year, plus a fruit orchard with six trees. Also to be planted are 450 berry plants, including raspberries, strawberries and blackberries, that will be available “to anyone in the city that would like to have access to them,” Merrett said.

There are plenty of other things happening with HUGS:

  • The non-profit group recently hosted a weekend for children, who received seedlings to take home and learned about healthy eating.
  • HUGS received a grant from Miracle-Gro, the garden fertilizer company, to create a kids' garden, which is coming soon, and a pollinator garden.
  • Another fruit and herb garden also is being created.
  • HUGS is working on a research project with the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and Vanderbilt University. Over the summer HUGS will teach kids and their families about healthy eating, and will give them fruits and vegetables to take home. HUGS will will track their eating and exercise habits, "and then we'll know at the end of the project whether or not we've had an impact," Merrett said. "If we can show we are making that kind of impact, then we have the ability to work with researchers through major universities to get additional grants to do those kind of research projects."

People wishing to use a garden plot or join the effort can email or call 513-325-3042 and leave a message.

One HUGS board member is Gretchen Hurley, a retired commercial grower from North Carolina who grew crops for farmers’ markets. During winters she made jams, jellies, chutneys and salsas for sale. She has been growing plants with HUGS for three seasons, and this past week harvested some asparagus.

A key group that HUGS wants to attract is “people who like to dig in the dirt,” Hurley said with a laugh.

Also, said Merrett: “Kids who are interested in learning about gardening and healthy eating. That’s what we’re all about.”

Merrett and Hurley have been charmed by some Mormon missionaries who asked if they could help out at HUGS.

“Two young men showed up and asked if they could help,” Hurley said. “We said, ‘Certainly.’ And they’ve been very faithful. They show up every Tuesday morning for two hours, and they’ve done everything from move wheelbarrow-loads of soil to just last Tuesday they helped harvest over 20 pounds of greens to give away — collards, lettuce and spinach.”

“We plan to use all the land, eventually,” Hurley said of the Front Street property.

She also envisions “a food forest here,” where people who are walking by would be able to “walk by, and help themselves to a peach, or a plum, or an apple.”

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