Prosperity Gardens is adding garden space and a farm stand this year, and it also hopes to obtain a building for a community food center. The organization was started three years ago to teach kids about growing food and nutrition.
CHAMPAIGN — The spinach, lettuce and collard greens are already planted.
Strawberries, squash, tomatoes and a lot of vegetables are on the way.
And there's more sprouting at Prosperity Gardens on Champaign's North First Street: expansion plans.
This 3-year-old organization — started to teach kids about growing food and nutrition — is adding more garden space and a new farm stand and is looking to acquire a building.
The new garden space will be across the road from Prosperity Gardens' current 14 raised beds, on a vacant lot north of the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation building at 302 N. First St., C.
All the produce raised this year will be sold to the public from a new farm stand being built later this month on North First Street, said Nicole Bridges, Prosperity Gardens director.
The cornerstone of the organization's growth plans involves acquiring the vacant former Champaign police evidence building, next to the current gardens, Bridges said.
The city expects to make this building available to bidders later this summer, and Prosperity Gardens wants it to turn into a community food center with a commercial teaching kitchen, indoor plant growing space and room to hold classes.
"There's going to be a place to come and cook, a place to come and work; it's going to be us having a home," Bridges said.
Prosperity Gardens is already leasing its current garden space from the city for a dollar a year.
It hopes to acquire the building for a mere dollar so it can focus on raising money for remodeling costs, expected to run $300,000 to $400,000, Bridges said.
"So we need to get that building for free if we can get it," she said.
Prosperity Gardens said it's dedicated to cultivating healthy communities through neighborhood farming, and it's currently doing that by providing education and employment opportunities for students in the READY alternative school run by the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education.
But Prosperity Gardens also wants to connect with the North First Street neighborhood and community, said Val McWilliams, senior supervising attorney with the Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, one of the organizations that helped launch the organization.
Now an active collaborator with Prosperity Gardens herself, McWilliams said Prosperity Gardens aims to build a model in the North First Street neighborhood that can be expanded to other neighborhoods, and the building is a key part of that.
This community food center would incorporate under one roof the whole educational process of where "real" food comes from (as in not out of a package) and how to grow it and bring it to the table, she said.
"We just think a community food center is a way to bring all this together," McWilliams said.
Embedded in Prosperity Gardens' mission is working to overcome two key health issues that sometimes overlap: obesity and food insecurity.
Nearly 15 percent of the families served by the Eastern Illinois Foodbank are food-insecure, meaning they don't know where their next meals are coming from. Yet more than two-thirds of U.S. adults and more than one-third of kids and adolescents are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The kind of food that's gotten cheaper over the years is not fruits and vegetables," McWilliams said. "It's a complicated problem to fix."
Dr. Napoleon Knight, a Carle physician and one of Prosperity Gardens' founding board members, said he's seen the impact of poor lifestyle choices on his patients that result in obesity and obesity-related diseases.
"I just got to the point that I thought we had to do something," he said.
Carle's medical director of hospital medicine, regional emergency medicine and hospitalist services, Knight said he lacks the time to garden as much as he'd like, but he knows the benefits it delivers in fresh food and exercise.
"To be out there with the sunshine, with the wind blowing, with the worms, you're creating amazing things," he said.
And kids learn so much from it, he said.
Teaching kids gardening offers them a chance to learn about science, math, nutrition and growing food, he said, plus, "when you're out working in the garden, you're moving."
Fellow board member David Freeman of Urbana is enthusiastic about Prosperity Gardens' plans.
"I like the project; I like what we're doing," he said. "We're touching people in a way that makes them healthier."
Freeman said he'd love to see a future Champaign-Urbana as a gardening community with everyone growing food.
"Where there is available space, in your back yard, even on your balconies, on your porches, you can have a garden," he said. "What would be better, for a kid to walk down to the store to get candy, or out to the garden to get a tomato?"
Bridges, a former Peace Corps volunteer, said she works with students who don't have any idea what a fresh peach tastes like until she gets them to try one.
"The number of kids that have never tasted fresh fruits and vegetables is staggering," she said.
Prosperity Gardens provided two part-time jobs for READY students last summer and will provide jobs for five students this summer, Bridges said.
The new, extra garden space will be planted with some crops that need elbow room — pumpkins and watermelon — plus sweet corn and more of what's planted across the road, Bridges said.
The gardens will provide some affordable produce for people who can't afford to buy it at the store, or at farmers' markets where prices can run too high for the poor, she and McWilliams said.
The new farm stand will be open selling produce three days a week, with produce being sold on one of those days for whatever price customers can afford to pay, they said.
The organization is also looking for a donated truck, to take its produce on the road to sell this summer, Bridges said.
"If people aren't going to come to us, we'd like to go to them," she said.
Donna Kaufman, director of the READY program, said more students want to be involved in READY's food and nutrition program.
Prosperity Garden's building plans would help the school expand its program and help prepare more students for careers in food and agriculture fields, she said.
Kaufman contends society as a whole needs to do a better job educating kids where food comes from.
"A lot of our students think food comes from a bag," she said, "and it doesn't."
Prosperity Gardens is looking to grow at a time the city of Champaign is in the middle of considering a new sustainability plan that includes advancing urban food production as one of its goals.
The city owns many vacant lots with the potential for gardening, according to the plan.
Since there's interest in using these lots for community gardening, the city needs to create a program for leasing them for food production, along with addressing the zoning changes that recognize agriculture in the city, said Lacey Rains Lowe, a city planner.
Long term, the city would like to see these lots redeveloped, she said, so use of the land for community gardens would be considered transitional.
But the city's proposed "Champaign Growing Greener" plan highlights healthy eating and local food production as an area of growing interest, and suggests several strategies and partnerships for city involvement in both.
Lowe said she finds Prosperity Gardens' plans interesting.
"It's the kind of thing other communities have done," she said. "It brings a lot of life to that site that was not there before."
Knight pictures local kids getting to try a home-grown veggie like eggplant — prepared in Prosperity Gardens' own kitchen — and having that "aha" moment.
"As we continue to move forward with this, it's an idea that makes sense," he said.
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