Sowing the Seeds of Conservation
Ikes bring community gardens to a “food desert” in Des Moines
The Des Moines Chapter (Iowa) is bringing agriculture to the inner city as part of an effort to increase community access to fresh, healthy foods. Chapter members till community gardens in low-income and urban neighborhoods and donate thousands of pounds of fresh produce to local organizations. They also create urban prairies to increase garden production by attracting native pollinators and to improve the health and quality of local watersheds.
Ray Meylor and his wife Susan moved to Des Moines two years ago. Meylor has a background in farming and was invited to a conference about using local food systems to end childhood hunger. “I had not heard of the ‘food desert’ in Des Moines,” says Meylor, referring to communities that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy foods. “I mean, Iowa is supposed to be in America’s bread basket!” Working with local schools, churches, community associations, and other nonprofits, Meylor is bringing community gardens to fruition across the city.
Meylor uses his tractor to till community garden plots at no charge. “When I began coordinating the Edmunds Community Garden in March 2010, there was no budget, no resources,” recalls garden coordinator Dawn O’Brien. “I had very little experience or know-how when it came to organic gardening. I was looking for help with tilling, and someone offered me the name and phone number of Ray Meylor. Little did I know what vast experience Ray could offer! He answered a hundred questions, and his tilling made it possible to expand our garden to 52 plots. We simply could not have served our gardeners without Ray’s assistance.” He also helps connect people with resources they need for successful urban gardens. “Earlier this year, I shared with Ray that we needed compost and mulch,” says O’Brien. “He e-mailed me the contact information of people he knew, and lo and behold, we have compost and mulch for our garden this year — all 13,536 square feet of it — for free! Our garden soil has not had compost tilled into it for years and was direly in need of nutrients.”
The Edmunds Community Garden is located at Edmunds Elementary School. Many of the gardeners are parents of children attending the school. This year, Meylor received permission to plant an “urban prairie” — a variety of native prairie plants — on one of the Edmunds plots. The plants will attract native pollinators to the garden site, which will in turn benefit the edibles growing in the garden. Classes at Edmunds Elementary are now using the prairie as part of their science curriculum, and the full garden provides an environment in which students can learn about food production and nutrition as well as land stewardship and ecology.
One barrier to growing healthy foods locally is a lack of appropriate tools. (Meylor once saw a man tilling his community garden plot with a broken steel pipe.) Des Moines Chapter members collected a variety of garden equipment — from tillers and mowers to rain barrels and hand tools — and donated it to a nonprofit working to revitalize a Des Moines neighborhood that is one of the lowest income communities in Iowa. Some of the equipment will be used by neighborhood youth to earn money helping community gardeners.
Another obstacle to urban gardens is water for crops. In one area, youth and families were carrying jugs of water across a busy road because the community could not afford the $18,000 necessary to run water pipes under the street and set up a hydrant near the garden. Meylor’s solution: rain barrels. The Des Moines Chapter constructed and donated rain barrels to the community garden, which “will give them water for free and double the production of their gardens,” says Meylor. When the Des Moines Chapter hosted the League’s Youth Convention in July, young Ikes spent part of their time building 30 additional rain barrels to be donated to urban gardens throughout Des Moines.
The Des Moines Chapter also operates its own one-acre garden. A farmer on the outskirts of the city donates the land for the Ikes to cultivate. In return, the farmer can pick whatever produce his family may want to eat. The rest of the produce — more than 5,000 pounds each year — is harvested by League members and donated to the YMCA, local schools and churches, and a group home. As part of their outreach to new schools, League members donate produce and baked goods made from some of that produce. “After students try the baked goods and take home the recipe and their own bag of ripe produce,” explains Meylor, “parents get excited about starting a school garden.”
One of the goals of these garden projects is to teach children and their families about “food value” — nutrients available from different foods and their benefits. People living in urban communities often do not have access to fresh, local produce and opt instead for fast food that has little food value. Through community gardens, families can not only grow their own produce but also sell extra produce to local markets, creating an economic opportunity for themselves and giving other community members access to fresh produce. The gardens help improve residents’ food security — continued access to affordable and healthy food — and can help decrease obesity and other health-related conditions and costs.
“Ray has a wonderful way of listening and
responding with possible ideas and sound
advice,” O’Brien says. “His connections
with dedicated people in the community, the
state, and the Izaak Walton League have all
added up to making a measurable difference in
the lives of so many at our school.” The same
can be said for people enjoying gardens
throughout Des Moines thanks to the efforts of
Ray Meylor and the Des Moines Ikes.
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