Tragically, hunger remains a problem for 21st century Americans. Our senior population is at high risk. We grow enough food—more than enough, in fact—to feed the country, yet still struggle to see that it finds its way to the hungry. It is a problem facing other parts of the world, as well, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has been vocal on not just the lack of access to food, but to nutritious food. Poor food options can lead to obesity, as well as a number of other chronic illnesses. This hits close to home for older persons in Tennessee. According to a 2012 Meals on Wheels report on senior hunger, Tennessee ranks 5th from the bottom in the United States, with many older Tennesseans wondering from where they will get their next meal.
The AARP Foundation, in a 2011 report, "Hunger Among Older Americans Spikes," announced that the number of Americans 50 and older at risk of hunger totaled almost 9 million. The National Resource Center on Nutrition, Physical Activity and Aging reports that "one out of every four older Americans suffer from poor nutrition" and emphasizes that the problem is not just a lack of food, but also that some seniors "simply cannot afford to buy the kind of food that could help keep them healthy." After all, even if many of us—at any age—can afford a few burgers a day off the value menu of any fast food chain, we understand that would not be the healthy choice. Eating until we are full does not always mean eating well. For seniors, poor nutrition or malnutrition can lead to serious weight fluctuations (up or down), other diseases, greater frailty, and more frequent visits to physicians.
It is in that context that community gardens have become, literally, a growing asset to those looking to combat hunger. In our own state, the first harvest has already come and gone in Lake County, where the idea of a community garden was made a reality.
The Garden: Growing Our Own Assets
Lake County Senior Center Director Connie Harper was a driving force behind the creation of her community's garden, and she describes the planning and effort that went into its creation:
"For a community garden to be successful, one needs many volunteers that are willing to help. Contributions of land, tools, seeds, fencing, soil improvements or money are all vital to a successful community garden. It takes planning, support from your suppliers, and favorable media coverage, and you have the makings of a wonderful marketing opportunity and a great community garden. In our county, we were blessed to have media, community support, elected officials, land owners, and many senior citizens willing to carry the load."
"The number one task was to get the right people in place in the beginning. These people need to have a positive attitude and be well liked in the community. A good example is the mayor of the county. This person will have contacts and be able to make arrangements and get things moving quickly. Our garden was also a huge success due to the media attention, which drew the interest of the community. Each week the local newspaper featured a photograph and an article to update the community of the progress of the garden."
"For a community garden to be successful, one needs many volunteers that are willing to help."
"The site needs to be easily accessible also. The one we chose was located in the city park. This was very easy for parents and grandparents to bring their children along while harvesting or working in the garden. The city already has insurance and the garden could fall under the umbrella policy."