Community gardens take root in Canton


The Repository

By Matthew Rink

This article originally appeared at:

More than a dozen community gardens have sprung up in city since 2013, thanks in part to a grant program through the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton and Live Well Stark County

Community gardens are taking root on vacant city lots where homes and businesses once stood, at churches, in neglected parks and outside community centers. Bell peppers, corn, tomatoes, strawberries, fresh oregano and thyme — you name it — they’re all appearing where produce aisles won’t.

Since 2013, so-called urban farmers have started more than a dozen community gardens in Canton.

Some people lease plots because their apartments provide no space for planting, and they relish the taste of fresh, healthy foods. Others, such as Jesse Byrd, the president of a local neighborhood association, and Brooklyn Mitchell, a 22-year-old Canton woman with a degree in public health, hope to teach kids the lost art of gardening and its nutritional benefits.

“A community garden ... provides direct access to those products and it also helps to rebuild a sense of community, provide social spaces of interaction for story sharing for intergenerational learning,” said Nick Morris, program director for Live Well Stark County.

Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton is responsible for most of the new gardens. The foundation provided more than $40,000 in grants to neighborhood associations, nonprofit organizations and churches the last two years through Live Well Stark County, a health-advocacy group, to address the growing problem of childhood obesity.

“We’re working with almost two generations at this point of folks who have grown up without home gardening as part of the regular culture,” Morris said.

Most of the emphasis has been on Canton’s four “food deserts,” areas where access is limited to affordable, nutritious food.


Canton’s food deserts reach from the northeast side of the city to the southwest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture determines food deserts based on the percent of low-income people in an area without access to transportation and who are more than a mile (in urban areas) from a grocery store.

In Stark County, 57,730 residents, or 15.3 percent of the population, is considered “food insecure.” That includes nearly a quarter of all children. Concentrations of food-insecure residents are even greater in the cities.

Mitchell is a Kent State graduate, fresh out of college with a degree in public health. The Canton native and 2009 McKinley High grad started a community garden and summer youth program last month after reviewing local census data. The 12 raised beds are in the backside of Turtle Park, a neglected, city-owned sliver of land off Rowland Avenue NE, just south of O’Jay’s Parkway.

Mitchell said the food desert data she used also is being used by developers of fast-food restaurants to choose the next street corner to set up shop.

“The closest grocery store is Fishers Foods,” Mitchell said after turning over a shovel full of dirt into a bed. “That’s pretty far from where we are right now. It’s a health disparity. I thought it would be a great idea to find resources that are sustainable so children and their families could get nutrients that wouldn’t hurt their pockets. Food is becoming more and more expensive.”

Mitchell contacted Councilman Thomas West, D-2, and Erma Smith, a retired Canton City Schools teacher, before starting the project. She formed partnerships with the Canton Parks Department, which provided the space, and Aultman Hospital.

A short walk down the block, Byrd and fellow members of the O’Jays Parkway Empowerment Neighborhood (OPEN) Association are fencing in a small lot. Work crews demolished a home on the site not long ago. They filled the basement with brick and other rubble, so there’s only a thin layer of viable soil. Once volunteers set up the raised beds, the group will recruit kids from the neighborhood to plant seedlings. Twenty kids have committed to the program so far.

Byrd said OPEN wants to provide an activity for kids during the summer months. Kids today don’t know the skills their mother taught them in their backyard decades ago.

“My mother had a small garden,” Byrd recalled. “She was growing things around the house all the time. She grew some vegetables and things, even though we didn’t have much room.”

OPEN received a $4,000 grant for Live Well Stark County, which stipulates that anything grown be given away. The grant enticed once-reluctant OPEN members to start the garden, Byrd said.


The movement, afoot in progressive cities across the country, isn’t just about soil, seeds and available space. Too few people have access to fresh, healthy food, and lack the know-how to plant fruits and vegetables and make them part of their diets.

Organizers of several community gardens in the city incorporate an educational component. Live Well Stark County and the Sisters of Charity Foundation’s grant recipients are required to host workshops for kids with instructors from the Ohio State University Extension office.

Mitchell funded her garden before learning about the grant opportunity, but is leaning on Live Well Stark County, the extension office and Aultman Hospital for support for her Diamonds & Pearls summer youth program, which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Wednesday.

“I wanted to find a way to empower people in my community,” she said.

Summit Community Garden at Fifth Street and High Avenue NW, which was one of the first community gardens in the city, and a garden taking shape between the J. Babe Stearn Community Center and the Early College Academy at Souers Elementary School, also going beyond growing.

Project Rebuild Inc., the nonprofit school that works with out-of-school youth to earn a high school diploma or GED, manages Summit Community Garden. It launched a healthy-eating curriculum for its students.

At the Stearn Center, participants receive a free summer membership to the recreation center if they participate. Organizers have paired the nutrition education program with a leadership series taught by Canton police officers.

“All of those things are drawing cards for kids,” said Tim Haverstock, program manager for the center. “Even when they go back to school, there are things to do in the garden, like starting a compost pile and even fall plantings.”


In 2012, the JRC Learning Center on Mahoning Road launched its Stark Fresh initiative, focusing its efforts mostly on the Corridor Farmers’ Market, which runs each Thursday from July through October. Last year, the program expanded to include a backyard gardening educational campaign and a raised-bed garden at the Learning Center that’s used for demonstrations.

“It all goes back to how you get food into the city,” said Julie Sparks, director of special projects at the Learning Center.

The Learning Center has received a groundswell of support for its efforts, Sparks said, and officials are reviewing what role it should play in future collaborations.

It’s taking on an even more-ambitious project going forward.

Sparks and others are trying to obtain a parcel of city-owned land that abuts the center. Once that happens, plans call for the creation of an urban farm, where the emphasis is less on providing individual spaces for gardening and more on production. Families could take home fresh produce from the farm, paying for it with a little sweat equity, Sparks said.

“If we can get to a place where we have a couple of thousand small farmers and we’re distributing (food) locally,” Sparks said, “we’d have better prices, better products, and we’d know where the heck our food is coming from.”

Self-described “urban farmer” Phil Shultz has a plot in three local gardens. He uses most of what he grows in his own kitchen, selling leftovers at a farmers’ market or donating them to a needy family. Shultz values fresh, organic and pesticide-free foods.

He’s worked extensively on community garden projects in the area and spent years as a chef. His most satisfying job, he said, is teaching kids at the Learning Center as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer.

“Talk about fun,” he said. “Kids love to garden. It’s goal-oriented and they love to get their hands dirty. They see the results and get so excited.”

Shultz does, too. Just call it the fruits of his labor.

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Rebecca L. Gallant

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