School and community gardens tackle food insecurity in the East End
Above: Bianca Gaytan, El Centro’s Wellness Coordinator, with patients in the Magnolia GROWing Community Garden.
What if we collectivized East End gardening efforts across our community and schools to share knowledge, resources, and volunteers?
That was the question asked at an East End community meeting in October 2018. As the possibilities of such a collaboration were discussed, a ripple of excitement swept through the room. Present at the meeting were area educators, neighbors, teens, and organization representatives interested in revitalizing what would become the Magnolia Growing Garden at the City of Houston’s Magnolia Multi-Service Center at 7037 Capitol St. But the collective energy behind building a cross school-and-community garden collaborative was unstoppable, and the Growing Roots East End Network (GREEN) was created under El Centro de Corazón’s Community Engagement Program.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, around 23% of East End households receive some type of public assistance or SNAP benefits. In some areas of Houston’s East End, 45% of school-aged children live at or below the poverty line, with almost one-third of households living at or below the federal poverty line. These are just a few of the factors that make food insecurity and food accessibility a persistent issue in the area, and why it was the focal point of GREEN’s creation.
Since GREEN was established, it has connected numerous government organizations, schools, civic-minded residents, and nonprofits under a common mission: Collectively championing access to healthy foods, improving nutrition education, creating greater social cohesion, and amplifying economic opportunities for low-income families. As of January 2021, GREEN members include representatives from eight elementary schools, three middle schools, and two high schools in Houston’s East End, in addition to representatives from two community gardens, one church garden, and the East End’s only farm, Finca Tres Robles.
“The GREEN Collaborative has supported school campuses in the East End of Houston by creating a unified voice to speak about gardening and agriculture and how it impacts the education of our students and community,” said Karim Alston, GREEN member and founder of Grow Local Houston. “It has created a communication platform for us to unite and better perform our duties as community members.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, monthly GREEN meeting locations rotated so members could exhibit the gardens they represented, discuss gardening techniques, and what they were growing at the time. Meetings often included special speakers, and discussion topics ranged from understanding food insecurity to composting 101, sharing information regarding free-to-low-cost seeds, tools, butterfly and edible garden programs, and other relevant information to keep gardens green on a tight budget.
GREEN innovatively leverages the East End area’s local school feeder patterns to nurture a love of and competency in gardening and nutrition from an early age. A large portion of the East End’s feeder pattern can now seamlessly move from elementary, to middle, to high school and have access to their school gardens at every stage in their education.
Most importantly, the collaborative consolidates volunteer power, hosting garden workdays at member gardens that need some extra help. A handful of school gardens were revitalized or expanded because of these events, growing the collaborative’s membership even further.
The fruits of this labor are varied and bountiful—quite literally, with some gardens producing hundreds of pounds of produce a year. All produce harvested from collaborative gardens are sent home with students who volunteer in the garden, community volunteers, or given to East End families who have been screened for food insecurity by El Centro de Corazón.
El Centro stewards two of the community gardens in the collaborative, one located at the John S. Dunn Health Center, and the other at the Magnolia Multi-Service Center. In 2020 alone, volunteers visited the Magnolia Growing Garden 139 times and harvested over 250 pounds of food, logging over 200 volunteer hours. Volunteers also distributed hundreds of plants to the community for free, so residents could start their gardens.
With spring planting just around the corner, GREEN has begun organizing gardening events with COVID-19 precautions in place, requiring masks and limiting the number of volunteers at an event. Interested in participating? Learn more about the Growing Roots East End Collaborative (GREEN).
About El Centro de Corazón
Founded in 1994, El Centro de Corazón (El Centro) is an accomplished Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) with four health center locations in Houston’s East End and offers a comprehensive range of adult and pediatric health care services for the underserved, uninsured, and underinsured, which includes primary care and family medicine, women’s health, dental, and behavioral health services. El Centro also provides ancillary services to assist patients to overcome barriers to accessing health care. In 2020, El Centro provided direct patient care to 12,012 low-income children and adults for a total of 44,200 patient visits. For more information, visit www.elcentrodecorazon.org