Crossing over the bridge, I could see the industrial side of Jacksonville next to the St. John’s River. The view was full of rusty metal boats and looking down I would have never imagined people lived in this place. Driving through the Eastside neighborhood, most of the houses looked old and broken down. When I saw Matthew Gilbert Middle School, it surprised me. It wasn’t falling apart like the rest of the neighborhood. Instead, it had a nice front and it was well maintained. While walking inside, I noticed several murals and pictures of different careers and universities. The reason for my visit to this school was to do community service and I didn’t put too much thought into it until I saw the garden; it was a natural and simple space. There were eight raised garden beds, and my work was to take out the weeds and prepare the soil around the beds.
Some people may think it’s better to participate in big projects instead of smaller ones like this, but working in the soil and conversing with the garden project director Teena Anderson and my professor Laura Jeffries, was truly informative. I learned about the problems of the school and the community. When I asked Anderson what the goal of the school garden was, she replied, “The purpose is to educate kids about vegetables, how to grow them, and to give them the opportunity to be involved in the whole growing process.” A big problem in this community is related to food insecurity and access to healthy food. According to the book, “Food Insecurity and Hunger in the United States: An Assessment of the Measure” by Gooloo Wunderlich, et al., food insecurity “refers to the social and economic problem of lack of food due to resource or other constraints, not voluntary fasting or dieting, or because of illness, or for other reasons” (44). To put it another way, food security is to have access to good and healthy food using acceptable ways to obtain it (Wunderlich 43). The food insecurity problem affects especially the children and families that can’t afford to always have food. Frequently, these families seem forced to eat unhealthy food while other days they have nothing to eat. Experiencing this can be stressful for both the parents and their kids.
Food insecurity causes health consequences among the Eastside community and many others. For example, malnutrition and diabetes can be present when the only available food is fast food and unhealthy food. Mariana Chilton and Donald Rose’s article, “A Rights-Based Approach to Food Insecurity in the United States,” reminds us that there are health problems related to food insecurity all over the United States, most of which are affecting children and women. The repercussions vary from depression and anxiety to a lack of cognitive, social, and emotional development in children. During my time at the Matthew Gilbert Middle School, I found out that they have incredibly bad test scores and the school is at the risk of closing if it continues like this. It makes you wonder about the children of this community who suffer from food insecurity and how this affects their learning. My grandma used to say, “you can’t study with an empty belly” and it is hard to concentrate and there is lack of energy. The people suffering from food insecurity are also workers that the economy depends upon.
This garden project started for the kids, and even though Teena Anderson can only be there once a week, working on the garden project has brought results. She shared with us that one of the children participating in the garden has created her own garden at home in her backyard, and just before summer, each kid on the project was able to take home a watermelon. It may not look like much, but this project is educating children and teaching them responsibility. It gives them the opportunity to be in a safe place outside. In the garden they are able to grow the vegetables and eat them afterwards. In a study about the impact of using food grown in an elementary school garden at school lunch, it was observed that children from the fourth and fifth grade who participate in the garden were more motivated to eat the salad that had vegetables from the garden (Cotugna 17). Ultimately, what is at stake with this project is the nutrition of children, which at school is not adequate. They are not eating nutritious food like fruits or vegetables, and it is important to change this because “Food consumed at school accounts for over 35% of calories consumed by elementary school students” (Cotugna 12). Not to blame the schools for the choices children make when deciding what to eat, this is a great opportunity for projects like the gardens and others to teach the importance of healthy nutrition and find ways to attract kids into eating well.
Teena Anderson wants to develop the garden project to make it an activity in the school so that teachers could go to the garden and work with the students, plus earning a grade for the class. This will be an amazing way to include more children into the project and it will have increased their knowledge about growing food and nutrition. In my opinion, this project deserves to be taken a step further and be a class of its own where kids are taught about how to prepare the soil, take care of the plants and produce, while emphasizing the importance of a healthy diet. One can only hope that these goals were more possible, but it is a long and difficult process to get these projects started and keep them running. It is important to understand how much work has been put into this small project that has been taking big steps into educating children about healthy food. On the drive back home, I kept thinking about Matthew Gilbert Middle School, its garden project, and once on the bridge, when I looked I wasn’t thinking about the industrial area, but I was thinking about the Eastside community.
by Sara Castaneda