Colin Corbett didn’t want to garden. Chronic illness wracked his body and wrecked his mood.
A severe flare of arthritis combined with Crohn’s disease left him bedridden for nearly a year, forcing him to quit work and school, where he was in his senior year of physics at the University of Montana. Even as his health started to stabilize, Colin was swamped with medical expenses, living on limited funds and feeling hopeless.
In an act of love, his partner signed him up for a community garden plot. He knew little about gardening. Even more, in his fragile state he was afraid to embark on a new challenge.
“I was terrified,” Colin says, his voice cracking at the memory. “I was convinced that no matter what I tried, I would fail. When you lose months or years of your life at a time, it can be hard to get back into the groove of things.”
Colin found good health in the Garden of Eaton, a site in a network of neighborhood gardens and farms run by Garden City Harvest in Missoula, Montana. Founded in 1996, the nonprofit offers 10 community gardens, four neighborhood farms and numerous youth education programs.
“Digging in the dirt is pretty darn healthy for a lot of reasons,” says Jean Zosel, executive director of Garden City Harvest.
Agriculture brings the community together for food, health, friendship and connection to others. More than just growing food, the gardens and farms reduce isolation and depression while increasing connections to nature and neighbors, she says.
Since Colin joined the community garden five years ago, his health has improved significantly. Gardening has become a near-daily fixture in his life, and he serves as a garden leader and mentor to others. He attributes his turnaround to the combination of new medication, the exercise he gets tending plants, eating more fresh vegetables and making new garden friends.
“It got me moving around and helped me with my confidence,” Colin says. “It really changed my mindset.”
Gardeners eat better, are more active, more involved in social activities, view their neighborhoods as more beautiful and have stronger ties to their neighborhoods, according to Dr. Jill Litt, a researcher from Colorado School of Public Health who spent a decade studying how gardens support healthy living.
“A community garden is more than a good idea among a select group of people; it is a community model for healthy living,” she writes.
Garden City Harvest’s efforts support Litt’s assertion. Its sites produce more than 100,000 pounds of food each year, most of which is donated to local food banks, homeless shelters and group homes.
As community leaders and nonprofits look for innovative ways to improve public health, the community garden movement has taken root all over the country, from urban cores to rural areas.
The Gorge Grown Food Network is a nonprofit in Hood River, Oregon. In 2015, it developed a fruit and vegetable prescription program designed to increase consumption of fresh produce. The “Veggie Rx” program allows medical and social-service providers to distribute monthly vouchers worth $30 for the purchase of fresh fruit and veggies at local farmers markets and retail stores. The program has been replicated by a dozen organizations in Oregon, including farms and health-care providers.
Anyone whose family has had to skip a meal because they ran out of food or has worried that their family would run out of food is eligible. Last year, the program provided $60,000 worth of vouchers to 900 families.
“A program that treats food as medicine is really valuable,” says Kate Karlson, a public health nurse turned Veggie Rx program manager.
For Colin, the community garden movement has life-changing effects, and he hopes to see it spread even further.
“Before joining the garden, we would never have fresh tomatoes in our home,” Colin says, noting the expense and poor quality at the grocery store. “I can attest that until you have had a locally grown, vine-ripened heirloom tomato, you don’t actually know what a tomato tastes like.”
About the Series: This Ruralite-produced initiative spotlights health challenges in rural communities, efforts to address them and the unsung heroes behind the work. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which funds projects and programs in Alaska and the Northwest. We welcome story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about community gardening, check out the American Community Gardening Association.