A fruitful garden requires a few simple yet essential elements—seeds, soil, sun, and water. At the Baden Community Vegetable Garden, it also takes committed, creative community members to help the garden flourish, strengthening the neighborhood with fresh, nutritious food and a common purpose rooted in healthy fellowship.
SEEDING A GARDEN
The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital awarded a community support grant to Assisi House to create the Baden Community Vegetable Garden in July 2022. Community grants from the Foundation provide seed funding to St. Louis nonprofit organizations to launch new programs to reduce health care disparities, foster strong community health care networks, promote health and wellness, or provide quality health
The Baden Community Vegetable Garden is located in the City of St. Louis between Our Lady of the Holy Cross Catholic Church and Assisi House, which offers affordable housing for previously unhoused individuals and families. In a community with few options for fresh, nutrient-dense food, program organizers prioritized growing healthy food and creating a community gathering place where all are welcome.
“We wanted a community garden for the people to have something to do that’s constructive and to provide them with things that they may want to grow and eat,” says Gloria Gooden, a Baden resident since 1972 and owner of Gooden and Daughter Plumbing Contractors. “My hope is that the garden becomes a whole community project.”
FRUITS OF LABOR
Gloria and three other community leaders ensure the garden’s growth and sustainability. In addition to Gloria, the garden’s core team includes Fr. Vince Nyman, pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Cross Catholic Church; Mitch Pearson, a lifelong urban farmer and former teacher; and Paul Loida, community volunteer and garden manager.
The idea for the Baden Community Vegetable Garden came from a series of serendipitous conversations among this passionate team and other volunteers. The Foundation grant made the idea a fruitful reality.
Community vegetable gardens are a proven approach to help strengthen neighborhoods by bringing people together, and they raise awareness of health and nutrition.
The garden is a way to educate the community, especially young people, about sustainable ways to grow vegetables to maintain good health while also supporting the nutritional needs of the community. The community garden provides children and adults an opportunity to engage with nature by working the soil and helping plants grow and thrive, which also benefits mental health.
Through the garden program, community members are offered free garden plots, as well as community garden space.
In July 2022, five families planted vegetables in dedicated raised beds while volunteers maintained a 20-feet-by-30-feet section of vegetable rows. Additionally, three garden beds were used for demonstration and educational purposes. Families, most of which had little or no experience with gardening, learned from Mitch, other volunteers, and each other to plant and grow tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumber, eggplant, purple pod peas, okra, herbs, collard greens, mustard greens, and turnips.
The community enjoyed the fruits of this labor in October when the garden hosted the first Baden Fall Festival to gather the community for a barbeque picnic and to showcase various greens, pumpkins, and sunflowers from the garden. Nearly 200 pounds of produce were donated to the neighborhood during the Baden Fall Festival.
By May 2023, participation in the garden grew to 31 families with a waitlist.
A HEALTHY VILLAGE
“They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Mitch says. “I say it takes a healthy village to raise a healthy child. I’m always trying to get the village healthier, as healthy as it can be.”
Research shows the many physical and mental health benefits of gardening and interacting with nature. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that exposure to natural environments decreases cortisol levels and associated anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, pain, sleep problems, blood pressure levels, cognitive abilities, and more. Exposure to sunlight also promotes vitamin D, which supports healthy lungs, heart, bones, and immune system.
A diet rich in vegetables naturally provides many vitamins and minerals necessary for the body to prevent and manage diseases. Vegetables consumed shortly after harvest have the highest nutritional value.
Over the years, many businesses and grocery stores have exited the Baden community, making it more difficult to access fresh, nutrient-dense food. The majority of Baden youth are eligible for free-and-reduced school lunch programs, though this does not typically include weekends and evening meals. Additionally, Feeding America estimates food-insecure adults in the City of St. Louis will pay $1,800 more in health care costs annually as compared to food-secure individuals. The Baden Community Vegetable Garden provides families free access to a basic human need—food.
“If you have access to food, that’s the first thing,” Mitch says.“If you can have access to food, shelter, and water, you can at least not be in crisis all the time.”
In a community garden, strangers become friends exchanging tips or even vegetables. In Baden, people who stopped by to ask a question or participated in the fall festival walked away with fresh food or even a garden bed to call their own. Mitch, a former educator, says gardening builds cultural wealth and teaches responsibility, problem-solving, and respect, which are critical to human development, especially among the youth.
MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS
Beyond nutritional benefits, gardening offers extraordinary mental health benefits. Our environment affects mental health in often subtle ways. One Baden resident shared that seeing the sunflowers volunteers planted last fall warms her heart every day. Fr. Vince says people are often unable to contain their joy when they stop to talk to him about the garden. Another gardener says she prays for her garden daily.
“Beautification plays a huge factor in the psychological mindset of the community,” Fr. Vince says. “Imagine yourself as a child walking to school by houses that are halfway burnt or have windows broken out. What effect psychologically does thatn have on children? This garden is about reclaiming the space and helping people feel comfortable being outside and part of the community.”
In addition to meeting the basic needs of the community by providing healthy food and developing important life skills, the Baden Community Vegetable Garden gives people a space to engage and learn, to be seen and heard. It’s a space of dignity and hope.
“When I see people share their life with other people, for me, that brings a lot of joy,” Fr. Vince says. “People are our best resource. We have to believe in ourselves.”
CREATING AN OASIS
Baden Community Vegetable Garden continues to grow both in community interest and the amount of vegetables harvested. The program team anticipates up to 700 pounds of produce in its second season and plans to add two additional long row plots for planting.
The initial funding from the Foundation resulted in additional grants and in-kind gifts from community organizations, including Brightside STL Neighbor’s Naturescaping, Forest ReLeaf CommuniTree, Bayer Employee Volunteer Grants, and Seed St. Louis. In addition to the garden, the grounds also include a small orchard, blackberry vines, and a peaceful flower garden planted by Missouri Botanical Garden a few years ago.
“My hope and dream is that this place becomes an oasis of human interaction, human creativity, and human imagination,” Fr. Vince says. “I do believe that can happen.”
Rooted in building healthy habits and a sense of belonging, Baden Community Vegetable Garden continues to restore dignity and hope for those who call Baden home. ¯
Through the garden program, community members are offered free garden plots.
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