Section 1: Introduction

What is a garden program?

Simply put, a garden is a space containing intentionally cultivated plants and the supporting infrastructure. However, it can be much more than that. A garden is a place in which people can connect with and learn from each other, a tool to grow nutritious food for themselves and their community, and a restorative environment in which to engage in a relaxing and fun activity. Gardens can be an excellent addition to your food pantry, benefitting the organization’s efforts to relieve hunger, improve health, and further engage with the community.

Why start a garden program?

The overarching goal of any hunger relief program should be to improve health. Being healthy is more than just an absence of disease though, and encompasses total well-being in mind, body, spirit, and community. Food security status plays a huge role in determining health of course, and gardening programs certainly can support improved food security, but they also have the potential to provide opportunities to improve individual and community level health in several other ways.

Caldwell County Christian Ministries Garden

Caldwell County Christian Ministries Garden

‘Connecting and interacting with nature itself has many health benefits, and the benefits of community gardens go beyond improving diet, physical activity, and weight outcomes. Numerous social and emotional benefits of community gardening have been documented, including social interaction, strengthened family relationships, community building and engagement, and greater life satisfaction. Moreover, food insecurity has been reduced in certain populations by community gardening, which also has been shown to increase food self-sufficiency. Although community gardening efforts have many benefits of their own, gardens themselves can also serve as a focal point for other interventions in the community, including family gatherings, community meetings, and improving physical and mental well-being.’

Stluka, S., McCormack, L. A., Burdette, L., Dvorak, S., Knight, N., Lindvall, R., Pierce, L., Schoch, J., & Walkling, P. (2019). Gardening for Health: Using Garden Coordinators and Volunteers to Implement Rural School and Community Gardens. Preventing chronic disease, 16, E156.

How can garden programs improve health?

Garden Programs can serve as the foundational support for many modes of service that extend beyond food distribution. As previously stated, the components of health are not limited to that of the physical body, and the factors that determine health are not bound by a by a single definition of a healthy lifestyle. One model used in public health is the Social Determinants of Health. Social determinants of health, or SDOH, are “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks” (“Social Determinants of Health”). This model (see fig. 1) holds that health is shaped by the environmental and social structures of a community, the economic stability of community members, and the health care and education that is available. A garden program can address each of these factors by acting as a multi-faceted community resource that enhances the built environment, strengthens social ties, and provides educational opportunities to advance individual health and economic stability.

Social Determinants of Health

Fig. 1. Kiles, Tyler, et al. Diagram of Social Determinants of Health. 2020

Another model used in public health is the ‘Social-Ecological Model of Health’ (see fig. 2). This model details five overlapping tenets of health at different scales from the individual to national level (Poux). A garden program exists as a public health strategy that can address several key elements of this model concurrently. By developing gardening programs and structures within your food pantry that are informed by the needs of the community, interpersonal networks can be built that reconnect individuals to their food and each other. This method of addressing health both benefits the immediate community, and informs future hunger-relief efforts at your site, while inspiring other organizations to do the same.

Social Ecological Model of Health

Fig. 2. Guest, Greg and Emily E. Namey, Diagram of Social Ecological Model of Health. 2015

Primary Goals Of Gardening

Gardens have the potential to offer improvements to individual and community health in the following four ways.

Primary Goals of Gardening

Fig. 3. Primary Goals of Garden Programs

Food Access

By assessing the built environment and locating the sites of production within the neighborhoods and communities served, a garden program can increase food access. Growing food makes fresh and culturally preferred produce readily and consistently available while addressing economic, spatial, and social barriers to accessing healthy food.

Community Building

Gardening can create an inclusive shared space to foster friendship and stewardship within communities. Improving the opportunities to tend to the social and physical welfare of the neighborhood environment builds the foundation to support the building of community.

Food Literacy

To gain skills and build individual capacity, a garden program can include educational resources regarding identifying, choosing, growing, preparing, and enjoying a healthy diet at all life stages. Developing and teaching food literacy curricula allows for the knowledge gained by the individual to disseminate through the household, social network, and community.

Environmental Enhancement

Neighborhoods with abundant vegetation have cleaner air, lower incidence of chronic disease and the associated healthcare costs, less crime, and higher levels of physical activity, while regular exposure to plants improves academic performance, and both individual mental and physical health. The curation of greenspaces in and around the food assistance environment therefor offers a powerful means of supporting community health above and beyond providing food.