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Volunteers Work to Bring Fresh Food to those Who Need it

A park in the center of Springfield has the usual park features—playground equipment, picnic tables and lots of green space—but a new feature will help feed area residents and is hoped to foster a sense of community.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky has more.

On a recent cool spring afternoon in the Ozarks, volunteers from Mercy were busy at Ray Kelly Park in the Meador Neighborhood shoveling dirt, loading it into wheelbarrows and hoisting it over the sides of raised beds to get ready for planting.

There are nine raised beds at the park at Fremont and Seminole—and with a variety of young plants already in some of them. 

Reporter:  "So, you've got watermelon and peppers it looks like--strawberries, tomatoes."

There’s also kohlrabi, sweet potatoes, string beans, artichokes, yellow squash and acorn squash.  Other beds are now ready for residents in the Meador Neighborhood to rent and grow their own produce.  And there’s a barrel garden and a small vertical garden.

Elaine Trimmell, a certified coding specialist at Mercy, was out of breath from working.

"I've always been interested in gardening, and there was an opportunity to volunteer over here," she said.

She said this project allows her and her co-workers to work toward a goal of 125,000 volunteer hours as part of the hospital’s 125th anniversary celebration.

This all got started when Springfield Community Gardens contacted Mercy to see if they’d want to collaborate on the project.

Trimmell said the location is perfect because there’s a need for fresh food in the area.

"This is a food desert, which, within a certain mile range there's not any available stores for fresh food, so this fills that need," she said.

Specifically, an area is considered a food desert if there’s no grocery store within a half mile.

The nearby Southside Senior Center plans to serve some of what’s grown in the garden to those who visit the facility.

Maile Auterson is Springfield Community Garden’s board president.  She said not only can community gardens teach people how to grow healthy food, they also build neighborhood trust through one on one relationships.

"You meet people in the garden that you have something in common, which is growing things," she said.

According to Jenny Fillmer Edwards, spokesperson for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, as far as she knows there are now two community gardens at parks in the city.  Springfield Community Gardens and Mercy had to make a special request to the board to put one in at Ray Kelly.  She said what the board members look for in making their decision is continuity and long-term sustainability.

"What made this particular proposal stand out was the fact that Mercy had a group of volunteers that were wanting to  staff it as volunteers throughout the season," she said.

Auterson said they plan to expand the gardens at Ray Kelly even further—making them about three times as big.  Besides the raised beds there will be tilled spaces for corn, squash and beans. 

The gardens, she said, have already sparked curiosity.

"We're in the middle of a park where people are playing Frisbee and letting their dogs run and swinging on the swings and playing on the playground equipment, and so, of course, they want to know what's going on, and they get really excited when they hear that they're going to have a community garden in the Meador Neighborhood," she said.

Gardening is in area residents’ blood, according to Auterson.  She’s a third generation Ozarks farmer and called Springfield “a big, grown-up farming community.”

"People have that collective memory of growing food together and building community together," she said.

There are already 19 community gardens in Springfield, according to Auterson, with 20 more in the works.

"There's been an explosion of interest in the community gardens," she said.

She invites everyone to get involved in a neighborhood garden—and she said it doesn’t have to be one in your neighborhood.  You can check out where community gardens are located in Springfield here.

According to Auterson, there aren’t too many opportunities to volunteer outdoors.  And she said it’s not just the fresh food that’s good for your body.

"Being outside has been proven to increase mental health, you know, lower depression and make people have an overall well-being, you know, better feeling," she said.

The Springfield-Greene County Health Department provided funding for most of the startup costs through a $2300 grant.

Auterson said with the grassroots organization, Springfield Community Gardens, working together with a well-established organization like Mercy, the garden at Ray Kelly Park is sure to be a success.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.