Johnson County’s wide open farm fields and abundance of local food producers are a testament to its rich agricultural heritage.
Marcia Duke lives that tradition every day. Her family has been farming in the Bargersville area for nine generations. She understands the value of raising your own food.
So her hope is to bring together people with a similar mindset and background to help address one of the county’s most pressing issues — food insecurity.
As difficulty accessing food becomes more prevalent throughout Johnson County, and as more and more people take an interest in local food, a group of like-minded residents are banding together to address a growing problem. The Southside Community Garden Initiative has formed to bring together individuals, farms, organizations and business to help alleviate hunger in the county.
Their vision is to create a large-scale community garden to educate, assist and provide resources to area residents who live in food insecure areas, and then those residents can use the garden’s example to create plots in their own neighborhoods.
“We need to find where these food deserts are, and reach those people who live there,” said Duke, community outreach for the initiative. “Then we can say, we want to come along side of you and help you to produce your own food by creating a garden.”
The organization is holding an informative meeting from 8 to 10 a.m. Sept. 18 as it starts putting ideas into action. The meeting and breakfast is open to the public, though you must RSVP.
The idea for the Southside Community Garden Initiative comes from the Aberdeen Foundation, a community foundation created by Duke Homes to support local projects and initiatives. One of Duke Homes’ key values is, “Loving God and loving others,” and the foundation allows them to better approach that mission.
When the Aberdeen Foundation was formed, the Dukes searched for areas where they could make the most impact.
“We were trying to find out what the needs were in the community, instead of just going out and creating something,” Duke said. “The purpose of the foundation is to help resource food pantries and similar organizations in the community where there is great need.”
Duke, who is branding curator for Duke Homes and coordinator for the Aberdeen Foundation, has a family history rooted in local agriculture. They have farmed in the Center Grove area since the 1800s, and the family still cultivate more than 2,000 acres of land that’s both rented and owned by the family.
Duke Homes’ Aberdeen development, located near Bargersville, is a living community dedicated to wellness, including the creation of agrihood areas. The designated spots inside the neighborhood will allow people hands-on opportunities through a working farm or neighborhood gardens.
Working in food sourcing seemed to be a good fit for the Aberdeen Foundation, Duke said.
“In the spirit of Aberdeen, and being a farm family, we were drawn toward the idea of farming and community gardening,” she said.
Duke joined the Johnson County Local Food Council, an organization created to work on food-related issues, with the goal of ensuring that everyone has access to healthy, affordable food that supports the local community. Through the group, she began to understand the prevalence of food insecurity locally.
According to Purdue University’s Local Food Program, 13% of Johnson County residents are food insecure, or lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. The county also reports 31% of residents have low access to food.
But Duke was intrigued and wanted to know where the local food deserts are, where residents don’t have healthy food options within a 10 mile radius.
She reached out to Sarah Hanson, agriculture and natural resources educator for Purdue Extension Johnson County, to discuss the idea. They decided to reach out to other individuals with backgrounds in gardening and community gardens. A team of people came together to plan the foundational aspects of the project — a mission statement, future goals and core values.
Their initial goals of the Southside Community Garden Initiative are to identify food deserts or areas that are lacking food resources, and figure out ways to get food to them. The group also wants to be able to provide food to local food pantries, and educate the community, particularly youth, about local food and food insecurity.
“One of our goals for the first year is to get a map together for Johnson County (of) where the food deserts are. That’s the starting point, but we need to know where they are first,” Duke said.
They reached out to experts in the area, speaking with individuals such as Alicia Geesey, agriculture teacher at Franklin Community High School, who is active in community gardens in the schools. The group toured the Interchurch Food Pantry and CARE Food Pantry at Center Grove Schools to get a better sense about how a local garden could impact that organization.
All of the activities of the past year have been about education and formulating a plan. Now is the time to start implementing those plans.
With the call-out meeting set for Sept. 18, the hope is to bring in more people who want to join the initiative. Once they have a large group of like-minded people who want to help, the real work can begin.
“This first year we’re going to gather facts and put people from our team in the right place. We all want to be rowing in the same direction,” Duke said.
Much work remains to get the community garden underway. But organizers are optimistic of the impact that can be made through the effort.
It can serve as a starting point, with the idea of community gardening spreading and taking root in neighborhoods and with residents throughout the county.
“We could help resource the garden, but then pull back and let the people run with it,” Duke said. “As we go in and teach, we can figure out the barriers to starting these gardens. Then we can help them get the resources they need.”