Thursday, April 15, 2010

N. First Street Community Garden Aims to Feed Spirits, Minds and Bodies

Sonya Lynch, program director at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, and her son stand in front of a vacant city lot in Champaign that will feed minds, spirits and bodies of area youth this summer.

Lynch, an avid gardener, is part of a new collaborative community garden effort that's part of an even larger plan to revitalize N. First Street in downtown Champaign and promote development -- all kinds of development.

Access to local food is one issue the North First Street Association and the city of Champaign have worked together to address, including the formation of a farmer's market last year on N. First Street.

In an arrangement between the city and the North First Street Association, the vacant lot across from Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation on north First Street is about to be turned into the N. First Street Prosperity Garden and it will be cared for by the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club.

One of those deeply involved in the project is Valerie McWilliams who is the managing attorney at Land of Lincoln. McWilliams said her organization got involved because it wants "to be a good neighbor and this seems like an obvious tool to promote good childhood nutrition and teach kids valuable lessons that will serve them the rest of their lives."

McWilliams needed the right person to work with the youth on gardening.  Someone who is "very passionate about getting this garden up and running." 

Enter Lynch.

"I like to expose my youth to as many things as possible that are not the normal types of things," said Lynch. "They would not normally think of gardening as a way to become an entrepreneur."

Lynch coordinates a program called JUMP (Juvenile Upward Mobility Program) that works with at-risk youth ages 13-18. The youth from JUMP and three other groups will plant the garden, harvest the produce, learn how to cook it and sell some of it at the Historic North First Street Farmer's Market this summer.

"I hope that some of the children will become interested in gardening and nutrition as well as their families," Lynch said. "Maybe they'll even grow food at home when they realize it's not too hard. They can even grow it in a pot."

Master gardener Sandra Mason of the U of I Extension Master Gardeners, one of the project initiators, will help develop the curriculum with Lynch, and work alongside the kids.  "Kids don't really understand where their food comes from," said Mason.  "People just see the end of the process. There are life lessons in gardening including delayed gratification, teamwork and entrepreneurship."

[Left: Sandy Mason, U of I Extension Master Gardeners and TJ Blakeman, city of Champaign, stand on vacant land that will be turned into a community garden]

As currently envisioned, the garden will be planted in two-foot raised beds with plenty of walkways for children to get up close and personal with the earth and eventually their plants. 

"We do a lot of good projects," Mason said, "but to me this one feels like things are really coming together.  This is one of the best things we do.  We're not just making the world pretty, but growing produce and improving lives."

The land, which is right next to railroad tracks, used to be owned by Texas Oil, according to TJ Blakeman, city planner in the advanced planning division of the city of Champaign, as well as one of the project initiators along with Mason and David Freeman, also a master gardener.   Raised beds will avoid disturbing the soil, which according to a 1991 report found by the city, contained no harmful substances.  Just to be sure, the city will do more sampling at three feet and six feet depths, according to Blakeman. 

The Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, also involved in the project, serves many low-income people including people with disabilities, seniors and families. Darlene Kloeppel, social services director at the Commission, regularly assesses community needs and one of the things Kloeppel found is that "a lot of things are pointing to the fact that people do need basic needs taken care of," she said.  "Money for transportation, housing and food." 

Kloeppel secured a grant to pay for a project coordinator to work under Lynch and for stipends to pay the youth for their gardening.   Eventually, the youth will sell their produce at the farmer's market on N. First Street.

For more information on this project, contact McWilliams at or 217-356-1351.

Kimberlie Kranich, author of this blog post, is director of community engagement at Illinois Public Media and may be reached at kranich@illinois or 217-244-5072.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Family Gardens: A Lesson in Sustainability

As soon as the weather warms up, and the birds start singing, my mind immediately wanders to thoughts of planting my vegetable garden. The pleasant association between spring and garden has been with me since childhood. I have many wonderful memories of working in the garden with my parents and my grandparents. Many, happy hours were spent curled up with my grandma or mom during the cold winter days looking through seed and plant catalogs, and talking about all of the delicious things we would make with the fruits and vegetables we grew. As I grew older, I would spend winter days mapping our garden with colored pencils on construction paper. I would also use great care and what artistic skill I had to make little garden markers to show us what plants lied dormant in the seeds we planted.

When I had a family of my own it was natural to do the same things with my children. When my oldest daughter was only two, she was given the important task of placing earthworms on her tiny plastic trowel and moving them to a safe area during planting. As she grew older, she helped pick out seeds, water the plants, pull weeds, harvest the crops, and prepare the meals. Our gardens are never large, just small spaces in our back yard. Over the years they changed shapes, sizes, and locations. We have grown tomatoes in pots, strawberries from a hanging basket, eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, all types of peppers, squash, carrots, radishes, and onions in the main garden. We have grown cilantro, oregano, mint, parsley, chives, and dill in the flower beds. We even planted a peanut plant just for the fun of it! Each plant, each seed, each harvest, each meal from our garden is a chance to connect with my children and instill in them the love for fruits and vegetables and the sense of accomplishment and empowerment that comes from growing your own food.

What I have learned as an adult is that my experience with gardening is rare. Everyday I meet more and more people who do not have these experiences as part of their past. For many people, especially those who grew up in larger cities, apartments, or in poverty, vegetables are identified with cans, not gardens. I find this not only heartbreaking, but a disturbing and dangerous trend.

As the administrator of Champaign-Urbana Public Health District I find myself faced with an epidemic that is unique to our time and our culture. While Public Health has steadily increased life expectancies in the developed world through sanitation and vaccination, we now find ourselves faced with an epidemic caused not by an infectious disease but by a lifestyle. The epidemic of obesity is killing hundreds of thousands of people through diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. For the first time in history, children born now can expect to live 10-20 years less than the generation before them. Our healthcare system is overwhelmed with fighting the diseases and conditions that are caused by obesity. This epidemic is not something that can be fixed with a vaccination or a pill. This epidemic is going to require changes in the way we think about food and our future. It is going to require us all to search our souls and decide if we are comfortable with lowering the life expectancy of our children. We need to ask ourselves if it is ok to feed our children highly processed foods filled with salt, sugar and fat that are killing them.

What we need is a cultural shift away from “convenience” and back toward “sustainable”. Increasingly our lifestyles have focused on fast, more, easier, cheaper. This is not sustainable for our health, our psyche, our economy, or our planet. In central Illinois we are fortunate to live in a place that has some of the best soil in the entire world. What do we do with that resource? We cover it in grass and feed it a steady diet of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer so we can cut it and throw the clippings into landfills. What if we decide to change that? What if we slowly start turning the soil over and planting fruits and vegetables where the grass was? What if those of us who know how to garden help those who don’t? What if we share our seeds and our plants and our tools and our time? What if we invite others to garden with us? What if we share our surplus fruits and vegetables with our friends, co-workers, neighbors and schools? What if they love the taste of the fresh food? What if we then mentor and encourage our friends, co-workers, neighbors and schools to plant their own gardens? Could it be that we could change the culture? Could it be that addressing the epidemic of obesity could start with gardens? I believe it could!

If you are reading this and it brought back any happy memories for you, I encourage you to plant something today. Start some herbs in a bowl. Plant a tomato in a flower pot. Put a pepper plant next to your tulips in your flower bed. Contact a community garden and get involved. Ask you child’s school if they have ever considered a kitchen garden to supplement the food in their lunch program. Talk to your church to see if some of their land could be used to start a teaching garden. Be bold and plow up some of your own yard and turn it into the future! Make a pledge now spread the healthful benefits that can come from putting a seed into the earth. Make sure your children can tell their children of the happy memories they made with you.

Champaign County has many resources to assist persons who are interested in growing some of their own produce. U of I Champaign County Extension is a great place to start! Local nurseries offer excellent and friendly advice on what to plant how to plant it. Our libraries have many gardening books, pamphlets, and computer access. C-U Fit Families has both a web page and a Facebook page to connect those who are interested in healthier living. We can stop this epidemic of obesity, but we all must do something. Take advantage of our beautiful weather, our fertile soil and our local expertise. Put a seed in the ground and see what change you can grow!

Julie Pryde is administrator of Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and may be reached at

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Local Doctor Gives Me a New Perspective on Childhood Obesity

As someone who has worked with young children and their families for more than 25 years, I have witnesssed the increase in childhood obesity firsthand. When I started my career as an early childhood teacher back in 1982, the number of obese or overweight children in the U.S. was relatively small. But since then the number of overweight or obese preschoolers has more than doubled. And the number of overweight or obese 6-11-year-olds has tripled.

The statistics for Illinois are particularly staggering. According to a 2009 study from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one in five Illinois children is obese, giving us the fourth worst rate in the nation. These increases have led to a rise in health problems including type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and new-onset asthma.

Initially I considered this problem in terms of individual children and families. I thought about all of the kids I have known in my 25 years as a teacher and family educator. I wanted to do something. When Sesame Workshop unveiled their Healthy Habits for Life curriculum back in 2004, I felt empowered. I am the educational outreach director for a public media station (WILL), and if I could get parents, teachers and child care providers to start using this curriculum, to start exercising more and making better food choices, I could really fight childhood obesity.

It didn't take long for me to realize that obesity is a complex issue that involves more than just a single person or family and their food choices. As I talked to colleagues at local community health organizations and researchers from the University of Illinois my focus began to shift. Instead of feeling the need to ACT, I felt the need to LISTEN and LEARN.
In the last 18 months, I have learned a great deal about childhood obesity from the members of C-U Fit Families. Every member offers a different perspective on childhood wellness and obesity prevention and adds to the collective knowledge of the group. So when Dr. Napoleon Knight attended a C-U Fit Families meeting last fall, I was eager to hear what he had to say.

Dr. Knight is a physician the the VP/Assoc. Medical Director of Quality at Carle Foundation Hospital, and he looks at childhood obesity through the lens of a health care provider and administrator. At the December C-U Fit Families meeting he talked about how obesity impacts practices at the hospital. He explained how the hospital has to order larger beds, make special accomodations for imaging devices like CT scans, and install special lifts to assist in transporting overweight patients. He added that in recent years, the hospital has seen an increase in job-related injuries to staff who are transporting or moving overweight patients. As a result, the hospital has had to take additional steps to protect their staff.

Dr. Knight's comments made me think about the societal implcations of childhood obesity. In February, I sat down with him to learn more. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
I asked Dr. Knight why he was concerned about childhood obesity. He replied, "I see childhood obesity as an epidemic in our community and in the United States of America today. It is an epidemic that is starting to get attention, but it's been under recognized for far too long."

Next, I asked Dr. Knight about his vision for community health, specifically childhood health and wellness. In his opinion, what could our community do to reverse this trend and prevent childhood obesity?

In response to his comments, I asked Dr. Knight how Champaign-Urbana can achieve this vision of childhood wellness.

Dr. Knight went on to explain that supporting childhood wellness involves the entire community. He talked about new partners coming together in innovative ways.

Prior to my conversation with Dr. Knight, I hadn't considered how employers benefit from a healthy community and healthy children. Dr. Knight pointed out that parents of healthy children take less sick time and employers have lower health-care-related expenses.

Dr. Knight's insights were enlightening and renewed my conviction to childhood wellness and obesity prevention. My experiences with C-U Fit Families have taught me a great deal about shared responsibility and collective energy. As a member of a group, I know I am not alone...everyone in C-U Fit Families plays an important role. In the words of Dr. Knight, "Working together we can achieve the goal, but it is not going to be quick and fast. It won't necessarily be easy, but in the end, it will be a great thing to achieve."

Molly Delaney, Educational Outreach Director for Illinois Public Media

Learn more about what you can do to fight childhood obesity by contacting C-U Fit Families at