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Gardens let growers share the love of fruits, veggies
Four-year-old Anissa Stephens holds some fresh peppers picked from a community garden at the C.C. Cloud Youth Center in Gainesville Thursday. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

For the children attending summer camp at the C.C. Cloud Youth Center, fresh fruits and vegetables are rarely on the dinner table.

Greenery is far from view and few flowers peak through fields of crumbling asphalt.

But behind the center, located near Cargill Foods on West Ridge Road, a small garden has thrived through two winters.

The center, part of the Veterans & Community Outreach Foundation, supports economically disadvantaged families and those who may otherwise be overlooked.

“There shouldn’t be any limits just because your environment may have some limits due to economic disparity,” said Michelle Lowe Mintz, the foundation’s program manager. “We want to expose them to making good choices.”

The garden began after volunteers saw Claude Whelchel, an older member of the community, planting turnips and onions in the open dirt.

Almost two years later, the garden has taken off.

“It gives a lift to the spirit to see something grow and make something grow,” said Marianne Scott, who volunteers with the children at the center. “You feel very productive and constructive.”

The rows of seed provide fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs for anyone in need of a good meal. The children work in the garden nearly every day and community members, like Whelchel and the foundation’s CEO, the Rev. Victor Johnson, keep it up over the weekends.

“The children have never had the opportunity to dig in the dirt and plant a seed and watch it grow,” Scott said. “So they love to do chores out there.”

She described the garden as an intergenerational effort, with both the children and the center’s staff members learning together about how plants grow and how to eat and prepare nutritious meals.

“This is pretty unique,” Scott said. “It feels like a family.”

Shannon Imes, a volunteer cook, provides more than 300 meals for the center each week. She takes vegetables and herbs from the garden and creates healthy choices for the children, who may not get filling meals at home.

As the children learn, Imes learns too. She’s excited to cook with fresh parsley and try her hand at different recipes and gardening techniques.

And she’s inspiring kids along the way.

“They see me happy because I grew my first piece of parsley, and that makes them happy,” Imes said.

Wednesday, the children ate fried green tomatoes straight from the garden, a meal some of them had never experienced before. They’ve also sampled turnip greens and okra, and they’re excited to get to try some watermelon later in the summer.

The garden is part of the larger Better Choices for Healthy Living program, which seeks to educate the children and their families about nutritious eating, exercise and disease prevention.

For Mintz, the garden has served as a symbol of hope even through difficult situations.

“It’s a bright spot, and it shows us a new start,” Mintz said. “We certainly believe in it.”

The foundation has recently fallen on tough economic times after losing funding from the Hall County government. Johnson and the other volunteers are seeking donors, and large posters outside of the center advertise a new fundraising campaign. The foundation hopes to raise $30,000 to support programs for the rest of the year.

The city has donated rain barrels for the garden, and Cargill donated new refrigerators and stoves for the community kitchen. Other individual donors have given food resources, and volunteers have given their time.

“We’re struggling, but we’re making it,” Johnson said. “By the grace of God, we’re going to make it.”

The kids playing and working in the garden don’t notice the economic challenges, though. They’re surrounded by caring and concerned faces. They just want to make something good to eat or grow some flowers for their mothers.

“I like watering the flowers and seeing them grow,” said 10-year-old Destini Pratt. “It’s just a pretty sight and I can’t stay away from it long.”