Free Produce Markets Build a Healthier Community in the Hilltop
There’s no fence around Highland Youth Garden. And that decision was intentional.
The community garden’s leaders want to make it clear that this garden is open to everyone, even if the surrounding neighborhood has one of the highest crime rates in Columbus, Ohio.
“In our 11 years operating on this site, we’ve never had a problem in the garden,” said Shelly Casto, Highland Youth Garden’s executive director. “People are inherently good. And they recognize what is good and what is healthy. That’s why this garden has thrived.”
Highland Youth Garden sits on just under a half-acre of land in a neighborhood known as The Hilltop. The garden started back in 2009 after two much-needed, but under-resourced, youth recreation centers in the community closed. A passionate group of individuals started planning activities for neighborhood kids, who now had no place to go. The idea of a garden emerged, and twelve years later, the garden is still growing strong with the help of dedicated staff, volunteers, and supporters, including ScottsMiracle-Gro who has provided monetary grants and product donations to the garden since the beginning.
Today, Highland Youth Garden serves over 500 kids and families throughout the year with hands-on programming, including a garden club, elementary school visits, nutrition and cooking classes, and regular community celebrations.
“Our goal is to enable and support our neighbors to become more connected...to one another, to nature, and to growing their own food,” said Shelly.
One way that Highland Youth Garden has accomplished this recently is through Garden Markets.
Free fresh produce for all
When the pandemic hit, Highland Youth Garden knew that many of its neighbors were struggling with job losses, unemployment, and food insecurity. As a response to the community's shifting needs, they began offering Fresh Food Bags––bags stuffed full of healthy fruits and vegetables harvested from the garden. Shelly said they didn’t want finances to be a barrier for people having healthy food, so the bags were free. People were invited to pay what they could, or nothing at all.
The Garden Market was open twice a week, and each week, they distributed all of the produce, with 85% of it going to the immediate high-need community. By the end of the season in October, the garden had distributed over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce to their neighbors.
Gardening packs for kids
Highland Youth Garden also found new ways to support neighborhood children. Twice a week at the markets, they offered gardening activity packs for kids. The packs were 100% free and included simple gardening lessons, like sunflower boats and creating your own seed packets. The packs were designed to help kids practice reading, research skills, writing, art, and science, while keeping them engaged in gardening until they could be back in the garden again.
“We had one young girl who wasn’t reading at grade level but spent a lot of time with us this summer,” said Shelley. “She was so motivated by wanting to garden and read her seed packets that she made reading gains with us over the summer. When she was able to show off her expertise, the pride on her face was incredible.”
Supporting growth and self sufficiency
Highland Youth Garden’s ultimate goal is to help develop self-sufficiency in their neighbors and to show them that gardening is a way to learn about the natural world and provide healthy food for your family. They’ve even begun to help local families install backyard victory gardens at home.
“Ten years from now,” said Shelly, “We hope to see this garden totally run by the children and parents we’re working with now. We’re taking the steps to make sure that happens.”
At ScottsMiracle-Gro, we are committed to bringing the powerful, life-enhancing benefits of community gardens and greenspaces to 10 million children by 2023. That’s why The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, along with our partners at KidsGardening, launched the GroMoreGood Grassroots Grant Program to help garden projects like Highland Youth Garden.
If you are interested in bringing a garden to your community, apply for a GroMoreGood Grassroots Grant.