In Duval County, the prevalence of poverty is higher than the state or national averages – nearly 24 percent. More than 3,100 individuals receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. Low income individuals and families often have diets that are less nutritious compared to those with higher incomes. Although SNAP can help increase one’s ability to purchase healthy foods, those healthy foods have to be within reach. In this county, more than one out of four residents reside in a food desert, defined as a community where healthy foods are high in cost and limited in availability.
Some research links food deserts to diet-related health problems in affected populations. Researchers suggest that an individual’s food choices are often influenced by what is immediately available to them. Therefore, improving access to vegetables and fruits can be beneficial in improving their diet and the health of the community.
The Growing and Nourishing Healthy Communities program aims to increase the availability of healthy foods, specifically fresh produce, through the use of community gardens. Funded by the SNAP, the Growing and Nourishing Healthy Communities program teaches participants how to grow their own produce.
To participate in the program, individuals must qualify for SNAP benefits; have an interest in learning how to grow vegetables; agree to help build and maintain the community gardens; and complete a series of educational classes to increase their gardening skills.
In 2018 a total of 10 families enrolled in the program in Duval, constructed two community gardens, and grew vegetables with support from Extension educators. Extension educators taught the gardening class series, which included topics such as how to select the right garden location, planting and watering techniques, controlling insects, and composting. Since both locations in Duval County consist of raised beds and limited space the availability of vegetable options is also limited.
USDA Natural Resource Conservation Services – Agua Poquito Soil and Water Conservation District has graciously offered a partnership with Duval Extension to provide land that can be used to grow a variety of vegetables while using their water harvest system. This will provide the participants of Growing and Nourishing Healthy Communities an option to grow vegetables that require more space than raised beds can provide such as corn, squash, etc. As produce is harvested, participants learn how to prepare it by participating in the Better Living for Texans program. Pre and post-surveys indicate participants had an increase in gardening knowledge, as well as an increase in the availability of vegetables and fruits in the home.