By Andrew Kensley
|Anne Genson in her home garden
|Three recipients of Homegrown produce: Maria Herrera-Valenzuela and her children, Ximen and Jesus.
In early 2010, Anne Genson began growing vegetables in six raised garden beds in her backyard. By no means a green thumb (her own admission), she planted, watered, weeded and harvested the produce all by herself.
Then she gave it all away.
The seed for HomeGrown was planted and has flourished since.
“I wanted to see if I could reduce barriers that keep kids from eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Genson, community health education coordinator for Healthy Kids Club. The barriers, she points out, include cost, perishability and convenience, all notoriously difficult to overcome in low-income neighborhoods.
But to do it alone?
“I was a little crazy,” Genson admits now.
But maybe not -- judging by the enthusiasm at the summer’s first farmer’s market at Poudre Valley Mobile Home Park in north Fort Collins. Here’s how it went:
On this sun-drenched July day, with the grass shining as brightly as the plump zucchini and freshly rinsed leaf lettuce, Genson unloads 25 pounds of spinach, Swiss chard, and bundles of sweet-smelling basil and oregano from her car. She is helped by two young boys who remember her from last year.
Within 10 minutes, the food is in the hands of nearby residents.
“It’s healthy and free,” says Maria Herrera-Valenzuela, who lives a stone’s throw from the organic fare displayed in wicker baskets on a fold-out table. “The whole family likes it, even the kids.” Her daughter, Ximena, 6, and 4-year-old son, Jesus, enjoy spinach and squash the best.
The sight of excited families collecting nutritious foods inspires Genson, as does the help from the two boys, Brian and Christian. “They knew this was happening and they were ready to go,” she says. “It makes me so happy.”
More likely to eat healthy food
Promoting health and wellness is not new to Genson. In her role with Healthy Kids Club, she develops initiatives for elementary schools in Fort Collins, Loveland, Windsor and surrounding communities to incorporate healthy living principles into the curriculum. She also runs after-school programs, focusing on low-income neighborhoods.
But three years ago Genson’s passionate ideals outgrew her resources, leading her to ask: If the neighborhoods’ residents didn’t have to go anywhere or pay anything for freshly grown, healthy foods, would they be more likely to eat them?
The answer—a resounding yes—created a desirable predicament.
“I had these grand plans,” Genson recalls. “But in the first week I had 15 snap peas and three older women with shopping bags waiting. I told them to come back the following week.”
They came. They are still coming.
The program sprouted like a runaway squash vine. HomeGrown received grants from CanDo (Coalition for Activity and Nutrition to Defeat Obesity, another UCHealth-sponsored program) and the Gardens at Spring Creek, Fort Collins’ community botanic garden.
Genson has continued to plant, pick and hand-deliver produce, intent on continuing her mission.
“It has grown tremendously,” she says without irony. “The first year I donated maybe 500 pounds of food, and then last year I had the great opportunity for it to become a Healthy Kids Club program.”
In other words, it officially became part of the job she was already doing.
The Food Bank of Larimer County also pitched in, donating eight raised beds in previously unused garden space. The High Plains Environmental Center contributed a greenhouse in Loveland for planting 1,500 seeds in the spring.
In the span of a mere year, HomeGrown expanded from one site and one market to four of each, and to supplying about 2,200 pounds of food.
The addition that excites Genson the most, however, is the involvement of kids. The feeling is mutual.
“I like to work, and it’s fun,” says 14-year-old Chris, a resident of Loveland’s Maple Terrace, site of one of the markets and a thriving garden. Chris received a HomeGrown summer apprenticeship, an opportunity that has helped him embrace the concept of giving service to his community.
Dawn, 11, another Maple Terrace resident, just showed up at season’s beginning and asked to help, unaware of the apprenticeship program. “It’s fun to get outside and work in the garden and pull weeds. I didn’t expect to get paid.”
The children agree to weed and do other garden chores for 90 minutes a week during the summer. Healthy Kids Club pays them with Walmart gift cards.
Everyone wins, Genson says. “It’s a way for them to make money and learn life skills, and for me to get some help in the garden.”
She proudly points out that these avid youngsters now understand how good it feels, and how important it is, to give back to their community. And if they end up perpetuating the program for years to come, that would be yet another victory, she says.
While the Healthy Kids Club now funds HomeGrown entirely, food donations are always encouraged, as are volunteers to help with planting early in the growing season (Genson starts in February), weeding, staffing the markets and transporting food.
“It’s a simple program, really," Genson says. "Grow the food, pick the food, give it away.”
Andrew Kensley, a PVH physical therapist, enjoys exploring the world by writing freelance articles. If you’re interested in helping with HomeGrown, contact Anne Genson, 495-7433, firstname.lastname@example.org.