City of East St. Louis
F.R.E.S.H. Community Teaching Garden
Population Division V
Ever since the manufacturing backbone began to wither away, the community of East St. Louis has become sadly accustomed to a perpetually collapsing economy. According to the 2010 Census, a full half of the City’s residents are not involved in the labor force and 37.3% live in poverty. Of great concern to the East Side Health Department was the scarcity of healthful foods. Few full-line groceries operate in the City and many residents have no means of personal transportation to get there while a plethora of fast-food chains are close by. The population is simultaneously becoming overweight, undernourished, and “hungry”.
The goal of the Foods Raised at East Side Health (F.R.E.S.H.) Community Teaching Garden were to nourish the individual and the community of East St. Louis through the volunteer production of healthful foods. Central to this was the concept of “upcycling” to convert waste materials or useless products into something of value. This concept was carried throughout the planning and implementation of the garden.
The future site of the garden, an abandoned parking lot, was choked with overgrowth and illegally dumped trash overflowing the chain-link fence that surrounded it. Armed with chainsaws and with help from public workers and businesses, volunteers cleared the abandoned lot down to the crumbling asphalt. But asphalt would not grow vegetables.
The effort was noticed by a swath of state agencies and they combined in a venture that came to be known as “Mud to Community Gardens”. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources provided silt dredged from Pere Marquette State Park Harbor, which was tested for safety by the Environmental Protection Agency. The silt was then sent via a fleet of Department of Transportation dump trucks to the garden site. The Department of Agriculture provided the seed for the garden through a grant.
With space, soil and seed in hand, the East Side Health Department began to create the garden. Consistent with the “upcycling” ethos of the project, much of the trash that previously blighted the location became useful features. Discarded tires became beds for potatoes, bricks were used to create an herb garden, old ironing boards were painted and turned into worktables, crumbling concrete was crushed and converted into a garden walking trail and discarded burlap sacks were used to block weed growth. The garden also has composting facilities, allowing garden waste to be broken down and converted into useful soil.
As the garden began to take shape, area universities began to show interest. One designed the layout, another helped determine the crops and volunteers from three others constructed the handicapped-accessible raised garden beds. Numerous businesses provided funding for garden tools, educational materials, promotion, and a children’s center.
The garden offers a hands-on-approach that assists urban families in learning organic agricultural practices and offers enormous benefits that promote public health, wellness and a healthier quality of life.
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