Nonprofit’s Gardens Nourish Roots of Community
Partners in Action for Healthy Living is growing what countsby Noah Chen
Rows of tomatoes, okra and kale soak up the sun. On warm days, the smell of mint wafts up to the parking lot of Peace Lutheran Church. In friendly olive-green type, a large sign above a well-tended flower bed reads: “Welcome to Belvedere Peace Community Garden.”
In 2005, Kaiser Permanente targeted the Belvedere Park neighborhood in South Dekalb for a multiyear health program, the Healthy Belvedere Initiative. That program resulted in the creation of the Belvedere Peace Community Garden, and while the HBI is no longer in operation, it inspired the creation of an independent nonprofit seeking to continue the cause. Today, Partners in Action for Healthy Living is a 501(c)3 organization in the heart of the Belvedere community seeking to raise a new generation of leaders while addressing community concerns.
“We want to improve the overall health of the entire community, and we do that by making sure that there are gardens, and by teaching people to grow their own food,” explains Edna Lora, PAHL’s executive director.
PAHL has three main programs. The first, Grow Your Own Groceries, springs from the Belvedere Peace Community Garden. “We invite the community in to rent plots. The price is based on income,” says Lora.
Roughly half the plots are rented to community members; the other half are used by PAHL programs, which helped contribute to the nearly 500 pounds of food PAHL donated last year to local seniors and food pantries.
The second, School Garden Support, helps plant and maintain five gardens at schools in the DeKalb County School District, including an herb garden at Columbia High School used by its culinary classes. PAHL also donates fruit trees, gardening supplies and tools to several schools.
The third program, PAHL’s Healthy Harvest Youth Farm, is training nine high school students to grow food from seed to market. On Fridays, they run a farm stand at the Belvedere Peace Community Garden and learn how to interact with the public, and prepare the produce and display it attractively. On top of that, every day the youths make and eat a salad fresh from the garden.
Lessons in nutrition, leadership and more
“We’ve taught lessons on nutrition, leadership and creating resumés,” says Lora. “We also have something we call Straight Talk every Friday where we learn how to give and receive constructive criticism and affirmations. It’s been a really powerful thing. We’re not growing farmers, we’re growing the next generation of leaders in South Dekalb County.”
The Healthy Harvest Youth Farm epitomizes Lora’s belief that “relationship building within the community has been the most critical aspect of this organization.” For example, youths might go into a senior home and provide a salad-preparation demo using homegrown ingredients and homemade dressing.
In past years, PAHL ran a senior produce-delivery program, donating hundreds of pounds to local seniors. Looking forward, Lora decided to combine that service with food-prep demonstrations, further empowering both the youths who teach and the seniors who learn new ways to use their fresh produce.
Many youths in the program find PAHL has inspired changes in their own lives. Darius Kerney, a recent high school graduate and member of the Healthy Harvest Youth Farm, says his favorite program is “pretty much everything. Being out here with nature; embracing your inner human.” In the fall, he plans to attend Fort Valley University and major in agriculture.
As the Belvedere Peace Community Garden continues to produce healthy crops, Lora takes strides to “address the social determinants of health” she says, which include “food access, stress around racism and loneliness for low-income seniors.”
The work for Lora continues. Her goal is to see a garden in every school. That way, the elementary program will flow into the middle school and high school programs, and the high school program members will join the youth farm program.
Just don’t call it a dream.
“It’s not a dream. It’s my vision,” says Lora. “It’s going to happen.”
Image: Noah Chen