Campus City News

Community garden aims to build Third Ward food security

At the community garden's height, 900 pounds of food in a year was donated to local facilities that serve low-income families. | Lino Sandil/The Cougar

At the community garden’s height, 900 pounds of food in a year was donated to local facilities that serve low-income families. | Lino Sandil/The Cougar

Before the December 2019 launch of an HEB, grocery stores or fresh produce-selling markets in the Third Ward were hard to come by. The store is the neighborhood’s first full-service, brand-new grocery store built there in almost three decades.

Areas with no places for residents to get food within walking distance, aside from a corner store or fast food, are called “food deserts,” said UH Office of Sustainability coordinator Gabriel Durham, and they have many harmful impacts on the community’s mental and physical health. 

The UH community garden works to alleviate these issues by donating all its produce directly to local food pantries and organizations that serve low income families and individuals.

“We try to give as much to the local community as we possibly can,” Durham said.

At the garden’s height, when it had the most garden assistance and the largest crops, Durham said that 900 pounds of food in a year was donated to local facilities.

Durham is a full-time staff manager in charge of the longitudinal aspects of the garden. Planting the plants, deciding what goes in the garden and making sure all of the crops are taken care of properly are important tasks on his agenda.

“Because it’s an organic garden, we don’t use any kinds of fertilizers or pesticides,” Durham said. “How and where the plants go is very important,”

Through volunteering at other gardens Durham, has gathered a passion and wealth of knowledge for sustainability.

“I’m a holistic thinker. My master’s degree is in anthropology, and so I’ve studied how humans have fed themselves for ever since we’ve been human,” Durham said. “And it has always had profound impacts on culture and on how we reconcile where we are.”

One of the main places the garden’s food is donated to is Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen that serves the homeless. The facility’s mission is to supply food to people who have no other means of getting it, Durham said.

The garden also donates to the Manna House, which aims to specifically help Third Ward residents in need.

Another recipient of donations from the garden is the Emergency Aid Coalition, which aims to help the “invisible poor.” The term refers to families that make enough money to not qualify for food stamps or other forms of assistance, but they have too many children or other underlying factors to where they continue to struggle with food security.

“They are still quite hungry or under the poverty line, though it doesn’t look like it on paper,” Durham said.

Education about food security is a core value of the community garden, Durham said. The sustainability coordinator said not knowing when or where your next meal will come from can have significant negative affects on mental health.

“Food is the number one place to cause people to have anxiety problems, that kind of stuff, if you don’t know where you’re going to regularly get food,” Durham said.

The community garden is managed by the UH Office of Sustainability, but the garden predates the office itself. The project was originally through a partnership through UH Dining Services and the local organization Urban Harvest, who does urban food production for those in need, makes donations and educates people about where there food comes from.

Originally in Lynn Eusan park, the purpose of the garden was to supply food to Moody Towers Dining Commons. Then, once the University started with the project ‘Green UH’, Durham said people started to realize the sustainability impact of the garden.

At this same time, Cougar Woods Dining Commons became the first UH building to obtain the sustainability certification “LEED,” Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, from the U.S. Green Building Council.

So, the garden was moved to its current location at Cougar Woods Dining Commons, and its mission was revamped to grow food for those in need and promote healthy, sustainable living.

“Because their (Urban Harvest) mission is to grow food for areas in need and things like that, and because we were looking at sustainability which includes social justice and that kind of stuff, the garden was conditioned to be primarily a donation garden to help alleviate the food deserts in Third Ward,” Durham said.

The community garden offers volunteer opportunities every Friday from 9 a.m. to noon, and on Feb. 4 the Office of Sustainability will kick off their ‘Recyclemania’ event, a competition among university recycling programs to promote waste reduction activities.

“The simple thing is that you can read all about it that you want, but all of this stuff is is contingent on you actually going out and gardening,” Durham said.

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