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Natural Awakenings South Central Pennsylvania

Hershey Community Garden: Growing Vegetables and Community

Mar 31, 2016 11:36PM

When Penn State medical student Ryan Hanson got involved in the Hershey Community Garden (HCG) project in 2012, the idea was still a seed that needed to be sown. Four years later, this thriving one-acre plot of land on Penn State Hershey Medical Center grounds is impacting the local community in far-reaching ways. Not only does HCG offer a place for local residents to garden, it offers educational programs for local children and supplies community members living in “food deserts” with fresh, organic produce that they might not otherwise have access to.

“Being able to donate the produce grown in our garden that is so nutrient-rich, so delicious, and packed with so much flavor, is extremely gratifying,” says Hanson. “As a medical student who has been helping to maintain the plot, it’s been an honor to be a part of such a worthwhile endeavor.”

“It’s really about figuring out how a hospital can foster community wellness,” says Assistant Professor of Humanities at Penn State College of Medicine Dr. Daniel George. He supervises Hanson and other medical students in an interest group called Food As Medicine, which aims to transform the medical center into a progressive, innovative hospital system.

In 2010, George, along with Wade Edris, a College of Medicine research lab scientist, co-founded the Farmers’ Market in Hershey, held every Thursday on the medical center campus during the growing season. “The market is a gathering place for those who care about the community. A prevention-oriented, community garden was a natural extension of the market,” says George, who asserts that hospitals don’t have to be reactive to illness. “Hospitals can be part of the prevention efforts. Providing access to fresh produce through donations to local charities and organizations working with underserved clients is part of those initiatives. The garden serves as a platform for a variety of outreach activities for the community.”

Some of those initiatives include a Prevention Produce program, where medical students meet with families and help them learn how to shop at the market and prepare the food they purchase. “We’ve learned that providing access to fresh foods is not enough. To be successful, it needs to be paired with educational intervention,” says George. Likewise, the Eating Disorders clinic has a plot dedicated to helping their patients regain a healthier relationship with food.

“Education is a huge part of our mission,” agrees Hanson. That’s why Penn State medical students host educational garden sessions for Milton Hershey School students. “Our primary goal is to prevent disease before it happens. We love bringing the kids into the garden. We teach them about gardening and they have a chance to get their hands dirty and see how much fun it is,” he says.”

In addition, Hanson notes that the garden offers therapeutic benefits for medical students seeking a break from the rigorous curriculum, noting, “It’s a much needed mental health break from clinical obligations.” Not only do medical students find the garden therapeutic, but many of the patients do, as well.

According to Rob Holquist, manager of Hershey Community Garden, “Initial funding provided by Hershey Impact allowed the creation of an embarrassingly wonderful garden with 124 raised bed garden plots.” Holquist observes that each one of his gardeners brings something different to the community. “We have a very multi-cultural community of gardeners who love to share their produce. The rest of us get an opportunity to share the tastes and flavors of exotic plants from around the globe. The most rewarding part about being the garden manager is knowing that there is always a place to donate food. All of my gardeners are in that spirit of giving and looking for ways to give back to the community, and we’re always looking for more folks and organizations to give food to.”

The garden not only affects people in the community, but other inhabitants, as well. “Another neat aspect about the garden is the synergistic relationship we have with the local bee population.  Thanks to several beekeeper doctors, there are lots of beehives within an easy flying distance of the garden,” shares Holquist.

George feels that the community he helped to create can be easily replicated elsewhere. “Believe me, if I can put these things together, anybody can. I’m not a master organizer; I’m just a guy who tries to have positive energy and connect with good people. Gardens are simple, pure pieces of infrastructure. All you need is a patch of turf grass, or even a rooftop.”

Hanson agrees with the simplicity of creating a garden. “You literally put seed into fertile soil, an abundance of water and let nature take care of the rest, and it has the potential to create human health and community. It’s almost poetic,” he says. “Anytime somebody puts forth an honest effort into something bigger than themselves, with vision, it will grow into something magical.”

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