Gardening a boost for physical, mental health

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Mark Mahoney, Guest columnist
Published 6:48 a.m. ET June 2, 2020

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In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic the role of a healthier diet is one component that can impact our overall health status. The role that increasing our consumption of so-called “comfort” foods may play during these unprecedented times is understandable but not a recommended course of action as many of these foods are often highly refined.  

We should try to focus on eating a healthier diet. Two such recommended diets are the Mediterranean diet or the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, both which include an increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.

An earlier column of mine published in May 2019 (Food Insecurity in Leon County and the Big Bend Area: Helping to Address Critical Needs) focused on the importance of obtaining and consuming foods with adequate nutrition. Today’s column focuses on the benefits of participation in community gardens in our area, provides some input on the Southwood Community Garden (SWCG) where I am a member, and also notes some additional pertinent information and resources which may be beneficial to our community.

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity refers to the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) measure of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.

Food insecurity or inconsistent access to food due to limited financial and/or other resources has been linked to many negative health outcomes, including obesity, which is a form of malnutrition.

In these unprecedented times of the coronavirus pandemic with loss of employment and an increased need for good nutrition, one resource that may be part of the solution is community gardens. There are a number of such gardens in the Big Bend area and resources are available for the establishment and maintenance of such gardens.

Hands-on at Southwood Garden  

My personal perspective and more recent experience in vegetable gardening began with my involvement with the school garden at the Florida State University Schools (Florida High) which my son attended for seven years.  As the Health Committee chairperson for the Parent-Teacher School Association at this developmental charter research school we felt it important to educate elementary school children in this area while providing “hands-on” experience.

During this period a group of individuals was working on the idea of establishing an organic community garden within the Southwood community.  After numerous meetings and fundraising appeals, the garden was established a number of years ago in collaboration with Sustainable Tallahassee.

Community members were involved in laying out the plan for the garden and many residents contributed their labor in constructing the plots which today number 34 4-foot X 8-foot raised beds.

In 2020 the number of community members participating has grown to an all-time high with all of the plots being cultivated.  And, for the first time, we have a waiting list.

Information on the original vision, mission, principles/goals and values of the SWCG can be accessed at mysouthwood.org.

As we progress into the summer during this COVID-19 pandemic the role of organic gardening becomes even more important for both our physical and mental health as well as having a positive environmental impact. Supplementing your diet by getting out and harvesting vegetables you have raised provides benefits to one’s health through better nutrition and by increasing your physical activity.

My third harvest from my three raised bed plots produced tomatoes, potatoes, bush beans, peppers and cucumbers. A significant amount of produce can be raised and harvested in a relatively small amount of space.

Consider getting involved in planting your own organic garden either individually if you have space or as part of a community garden.

Do it for your own health, the health of your family and the benefits to Mother Earth.

Growing for others

One example of a local relationship with a community garden and a food distribution agency working together is that of Lott’s Community Garden and the Second Harvest of the Big Bend.

Lott’s Community Garden is a growing and educational facility located just 15 minutes from Tallahassee at 39 Lott Road, Monticello. Thanks to Second Harvest’s close relationship with Lott’s, produce is harvested by their volunteers (and other local volunteers who assist in this effort) and brought back to the warehouse and offered to our community partners at the peak of its freshness.  

Additional information on Lott’s Community Garden as well as on the Second Harvest of the Big Bend can be found at fightinghunger.org/lotts-community-garden.

Educational resources

More information and links to local gardening resources can be found at Sustainable Tallahassee: talgov.com/sustainability 

An interesting informative historical resource detailing a short history of community gardening in the United States by the Smithsonian Institution is available at communityofgardens.si.edu.

Mark A. Mahoney, Ph.D. has been a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist for over 30 years and completed graduate studies in Nutrition & Public Health at Columbia University. He can be reached at marqos69@hotmail.com.

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