Seeds of hope: community garden planned for Wallace State

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Left to right: Wallace State Community College AmeriCorps VISTA staffer Heather McAfee, WSCC Grant Specialist Kristi Barnett and WSCC AmeriCorps VISTA staffer Hannah Kren addressed the Hanceville City Council Thursday evening about the upcoming Planting Seeds Community Garden. / W.C. Mann

HANCEVILLE – On Thursday evening, the Hanceville City Council received a briefing on an upcoming project at Wallace State Community College (WSCC) that could benefit the school’s students, residents of the Hanceville and Cullman County communities, and even people from surrounding counties who suffer from food shortages due to financial issues.  The WSCC Planting Seeds Community Garden will allow people to cultivate their own gardens with direct assistance from school and AmeriCorps VISTA staff, to put food that they raised from seeds on their own tables, and to gather for instruction and simple socializing in an attractive outdoor setting.

Almost 14 percent of Cullman County’s population, including nearly 24 percent of its children, suffer from what program leaders term “food insecurity”: going without meals, wondering where the next load of groceries will come from, and having to settle for cheaper non-nutritious foods due to financial insecurity.

One of the incidents that prompted the project was a conversation between a WSCC student and faculty member over concerns about the student’s health.  When the conversation came around to his diet, the student pointed out that he could buy a week’s worth of ramen noodles and mac & cheese for the cost of a single bag of apples.

AmeriCorps VISTA staffer Hannah Kren, one of the project’s coordinators, told The Tribune, “The project started because we realized there is a problem with food security, not only with Wallace’s students, but also with the larger community.  So we wanted to have something that allowed people to supplement and make their budget go farther, and we thought a community garden would be a great addition.  It not only acts as a way for people to have access to growing their own food, especially if they’re renters or lack ability to do it at their own property.  But it also provides another green space for the public to enjoy.”

The project will begin with 15 or 16 raised garden beds and some flat beds, but leaders hope to see 40 beds at the site in the future.  The garden will become a sort of park with benches, tables and a pavilion that can host gardening classes and even serve as a social gathering spot for students, faculty, and local residents.

And the value of the community garden could extend far beyond the boundaries of the garden park.  WSCC hopes to offer educational programming that both project members and home gardeners would find helpful.

“This is definitely a Wallace project,” said WSCC Grant Specialist Kristi Barnett, who accompanied the AmeriCorps staffers.  “We will be incorporating some programs into the project, and they’ll be offering educational lessons every month to the gardeners, and to any community members who wish to come.  The lessons will cover everything from how to grow your vegetables to the Culinary Department coming in and teaching you how to cook them.  We’ll be looking at how to package your produce if you wanted to sell at a farmers’ market.  We’ll teach everything that we can, within monthly meetings of one hour at a time.

“We’re doing our fundraising through the Future Foundation at the college.  We have been applying for grants.  The AmeriCorps VISTAs have worked very hard in their fundraising efforts, and continue to do so.  We have raised a little more than $3,500 thus far, and our goal is $40,000 within the year.”

A family that joins the project can work two 4×8-foot garden plots.  Those 64 square feet, according to information provided by the AmeriCorps staff, will produce around $80 worth of food in a season.  Membership in the project will cost $10 per month, but that cost can be offset through community service.  Every two hours of service, either in the project’s “give back garden” that provides food to the needy, or through service in other areas around the community, will reduce the monthly fee by five dollars.  That means four hours of service per month equals free membership. WSCC students and staff get free membership, but are required to give four hours service per month to participate.

According to VISTA staffer Heather McAfee, the garden will open on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, with a community work day the week before, on Feb. 17.  On Jan. 20, workers will begin excavating the site for the garden beds and walkways.

McAfee put out a special request for the excavation work day in January: “People who have heavy equipment who would like to come help, that would be awesome!”

WSCC is looking to hire one more AmeriCorps VISTA staffer to work with this project in the Future Foundation office.  According to Barnett, “For this particular position, we are looking for somebody who has a minimum of 10 hours of college credit, has strong writing skills, and social media optimization skills.

AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) is a federal program designed to battle poverty by encouraging community service and providing workers to agencies serving low income communities.  Volunteers serve for one year, receive a modest stipend and basic health care plan, and qualify for financial awards to help the further their education.  For more information on AmeriCorps VISTA, visit www.nationalservice.gov/programs/AmeriCorps/AmeriCorpsvista.

For more information on the Planting Seeds Community Garden, visit www.facebook.com/plantingseeds.wallacestate or email heather.mcafee@wallacestate.edu or hannah.kren@wallacestate.edu.

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