Teamwork and Education Provide Fish and Produce
By Mike Brownlee
The youth garden at the Heartland Family Service Solomon Girls Center is grown on asphalt, but its produce is fresh, providing food and education to the at-risk girls in the program.
At the north Omaha center, youngsters ages 5 to 18 work in raised plots behind the building on 30th Street, or inside using an aquaponics method that uses fish to feed plants.
The Solomon Center’s staff teaches the girls about what they should eat and how to grow it, incorporating the garden into both the sustainability and nutrition curriculums. “It’s growing food, but it’s also learning,” says Tammy Green, director. “We do nutritional education, and show the girls what a healthy plate should look like.”
Most of the Solomon Center students live in poverty. Their families bring in less than $30,000 yearly. The center provides enjoyable after-school learning opportunities for 80 girls, and serves as many as 150 girls during the summer. Along with education, Tammy says the center is charged with making sure the girls have access to healthy meals and fresh fruits and vegetables for snacks.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the girls were rambunctious but good-natured. Some played Just Dance 3 on the Wii, while others tended to the aquaponics system.
The system features a tank full of fish. They switched from tilapia to yellow perch since the former breed always fought. Water is pumped into a bed of soil pellets and lettuce seeds. The nutrient-rich water helps spur rapid growth. “In that itty-bitty spot, it’s amazing how much they grow,” Tammy says.
Brilynne Smith, 10, and Michaela Atkins, 12, worked the soil while looking over some fledgling lettuce. The water courses through the system, adding nutrients to the crop, while the pellets filter the water. “The plants filter the water for the fish, and the water that the plants use is great for the plants,” Tammy says, explaining that the nutrients added by the fish enrich the water. With a chuckle, Brilynne adds: “The fish poop helps the lettuce grow.” “It’s a very symbiotic system,” Tammy replies.
When the fish are full-grown, Tammy hopes they’ll provide food for the girls. The Solomon Center is currently working on a possible arrangement with the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College. The center would provide fish for Metro students to butcher as part of their curriculum. They would return the fish to the Solomon Center for on-site meals or for the girls to take home.
Both Brilynne and Michaela assist with both the aquaponics and the traditional outdoor gardens, saying the vegetables and fruit help them in a number of ways. “We’ve learned how to take care of a garden—how to be responsible,” Michaela says. “We realize what all you can do in gardening. You can figure out ways to get things done.”
The youngsters learn about when and how much to water; when to harvest; how to look for weeds; when to feed the fish; and why fruits and vegetables are a key part of a nutritious diet. They’ve also learned how to freeze and can produce for future use.
Michaela talks about the money saved by growing your own food, while Brilynne discusses the nutritional benefits. “We grow the lettuce, and then we’re able to put it in a salad,” says the always smiling Brilynne. “It’s healthy. This helps us stay healthy.” Both say they’ve taken skills learned at the Solomon Center home to use while working with their families in gardens of their own. “We’ll be able to take these skills and use them when we’re older,” Michaela says.
Good nutrition has been a foundation of the Solomon Center’s curriculum since its inception, but the garden started just four years ago. “We were discussing eating healthy, and one of our teenagers said, ‘If my mom has to choose between a $5 bag of oranges and a $1 box of Little Debbies (snack cakes), she’s getting the Little Debbies,’” Tammy says. “That hit my heart. I wanted to help empower these girls.”
Tammy decided to start the garden with help from Mutual of Omaha and the United Methodist Ministries of Omaha Big Garden. Th e ministry provided a system for establishing the garden and manpower. Construction of the raised beds was completed by the girls and staff from both the Solomon Center and Big Garden. Big Garden volunteers also helped the girls decide what to plant, and met with them weekly to ensure that the garden thrived.
Big Garden took on a reduced role in 2009, and by the third year the youth garden was purely in the hands of the Solomon Center girls. “It was a great way to implement a community garden,” Tammy says. “(The Big Garden volunteers) helped get us off the ground.”
Today, the garden features six raised beds, in addition to the aquaponics system, which was installed last year. The fish-assisted system grows lettuce in two to three weeks (compared to fi ve to six weeks in the beds), and allows the girls to garden year-round.
“We compare our lettuce to what’s in the store. Ours is this long,” Brilynne says, while holding her hands two feet apart. “And theirs was like this,” she says, while holding her hands about a half-foot apart.
The girls also grow radishes, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, turnips and strawberries. Much of the crop goes home with the girls to eat, while roughly half is sold at the numerous bake sales that the Solomon Center holds. Th e chef at the center also incorporates lettuce and turnip greens into afternoon meals.
As planting time approaches, the girls will be out in the beds again tilling the soil, adding nutrients and planning what crops they’ll grow. They will spray each other with hose water too, giggling all the while. “It’s fun to do this with friends,” Brilynne says. “It’s so much fun.”
BIG GARDEN, BIG MISSION
Founded in 2005, the United Methodist Ministries of Omaha Big Garden program has grown from a few plots to a network of more than 70 community gardens. The gardens are run by more than 1,500 volunteers in the Omaha metro area, rural Nebraska and northeast Kansas. Director Nathan Morgan explains that Big Garden works with nonprofit organizations, churches and schools to help provide fresh produce in areas devoid of supermarkets or other stores that would provide access to healthy, nutritious food. “We use community gardens as a way to address food insecurity,” Nathan says.
Working with partner organizations, Big Garden staff and volunteers provide supplies, seeds, seedlings and instruction during the first two years of launching a new community garden. By the third year, the program is set up so the gardens are self-sustaining.
For more information on the program, go to GardenBig.org.