CHAMPAIGN — It can be a real challenge helping people stay healthy when fried chicken and doughnuts are easier for them to get than fresh fruits and vegetables.
But when the going gets tough, well, the tough ... get gardening.
Staff members at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District have put the space outside their Champaign headquarters at 201 W. Kenyon Road to use by planting 30 raised garden beds full of fruits and vegetables.
"We're really promoting trying to get people to grow some of their own food," says the district's Administrator Julie Pryde.
The health district hosts a seasonal farmers' market for the low-income moms in the Women Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program, and the produce being grown in the gardens will be added to what area growers bring, says Brandon Meline, director of maternal and child health.
"Our garden project is to supplement that, and to sort of make people aware of the amount of food you can get out of a garden too," he said.
WIC clients, who are Medicaid-eligible pregnant women, new and breastfeeding mothers plus Medicaid-eligible kids through age 5, receive vouchers to spend on fresh produce at farmers' markets, Meline said.
This year, through a grant from Carle Foundation Hospital and Physician Group, those clients will be able to purchase double-produce with their vouchers as long as the money lasts, he said.
The health district started planting gardens in 2008 but has expanded this venture. Last year, there were 15 raised beds planted, Pryde said.
Some of what was planted this year was started from seed in the public health building over the winter, she says.
"Some of the things, I started at home," she adds.
Meline said he can't project how much food will be raised by all the garden beds that were planted this year, but any extra fruits and vegetables that aren't purchased at the public health farmers' market can be brought to local food pantries or taken along on the district's Wellness on Wheels mobile health clinic to give away to needy patients.
Meanwhile, to encourage more gardening, the public health district will host a one-time plant and seed sale for anyone receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the parking lot at the at 201 W. Kenyon Road, C, building.
A variety of seeds will be available from for sale at 10 cents to 50 cents per package and the plants — among them broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, strawberry, spaghetti and zucchini squash, watermelon, cantaloupe and sweet potato — will sell from $1 to $3.50 each, according to public health.
Many people receiving SNAP benefits are unaware they can use their benefits to buy fruit and vegetable plants and seeds — though many hardware stores and other retailers selling garden stock don't meet the criteria to be SNAP vendors, and those that do accept SNAP don't sell plants and seeds, Meline said.
Why not just go buy the produce at the grocery store?
Growing some of your own food will make limited food dollars and SNAP benefits go so much further, Pryde says.
You can buy the tomato plant for $3 and wind up with 10-15 pounds of tomatoes, and one $3 watermelon plant will produce multiple watermelons, according to the health department.
Pryde says even people with no garden space can grow a tomato plant can be grown in a bucket.
She looks around Champaign-Urbana, where grocery stores seem to be so plentiful, and sees many areas where people without cars still have a tough time buying fresh produce. All the more reason to grow their own.
"There are gas stations, convenience stores," she adds. "People just eat out of those."