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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Extension grant program increasing fresh, healthy foods in local communities

An apple a day might indeed keep the doctor away, but it is a well-established fact that not everyone has regular access to healthy meal and snack options. A number of local communities in Oklahoma are working to change that reality, though, and a grant program created through the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is helping to fuel those efforts.

The slate of Health and Hunger grants from the Community Nutrition Education Program is having a positive and measurable impact.

Ranging between $2,500 for individual counties and $5,000 for multicounty partnerships, the 15 grants are funding needed programs and initiatives scattered across the state with a common focus on increasing access to fresh, healthy foods as well as sustainability.

There is clear evidence the approach is working since being initially awarded in early 2015 for a three-year duration.

Learn to Grow children's farmer market

For instance, McIntosh County Extension office staffers and volunteers used grant funds to create a community garden and distribute the fresh, locally grown produce at senior centers, as well as other community locations assisting low-income families and children.

Generating an array of produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, a variety of peppers, squash, corn and even black-eyed peas and pumpkins, the garden features eight raised beds along with an additional planting area. In the coming year, the garden anticipates adding fruit trees.

Fresh produce at the Learn to Grow children's farmers market

It is easy to view the impact of the garden in purely nutritional terms. But, Pamela Ward, McIntosh County agriculture/4-H educator, who works closely with local Master Gardeners to oversee the garden, said the outreach has evolved into something far more meaningful.

“These people are excited to see us, not only because they’re getting fresh vegetables to eat, but the fact that a lot of them aren’t able to go out and produce on their own, whether they’re either too young or too old,” she said. “The excitement is overwhelming. The feeling of being able to give back to the community is amazing because the looks on their faces when you walk in the door, it just lights up their world to know we’ve brought them fresh vegetables.”

The community garden created by McIntosh County Extension and Master Gradeners

Meanwhile, a couple other grant-winning multicounty initiatives are working to make gardening accessible and fun.

Atoka, Bryan and Johnston are partnering on a grant initiative that uses cattle feed troughs for raised bed or container gardening.

So far there are five troughs located throughout the three counties, including one at an elementary school, which is doubling as an excellent teaching tool for the class tending the small garden.

“I know a lot of people live on a tight budget or don’t have a place to have a garden so this would be a way somebody could have a small garden without having to dig up any ground,” said Jim Shrefler, Southeast District Area Extension horticulture specialist, who is helping spearhead the project. “Since it’s raised up, elderly people could sit in a chair or if they’re in a wheelchair they could sit next to it.”

Volunteers and McIntosh County Extension staff members take care of the community garden

Meanwhile, five counties in the far northeast corner of the state are using grant funding to extend the reach of an already existing program launched in 2013 called Learn to Grow.

The initiative works with child care providers to implement hands-on gardening experiences for children and increase parents’ knowledge of nutrition. Catering to children ages 0 to high school, the program has installed about 200 garden beds at 78 different child care facilities in Craig, Delaware, Mayes, Nowata and Ottawa counties.

In its first year, Learn to Grow reached 2,900 children and 10,000 family members and many more have been affected since then, said Tari Lee, Craig County Extension director. Grant funds will be used to support a conference for child care providers and a children’s farmers market.

“The most exciting thing is the children are loving to grow and eat their own vegetables so I think we’re having a big impact on the families in our part of Oklahoma,” Lee said. “We’re having a big impact on them eating healthier and having more nutritious meals and also quality family time by working in their gardens and being able to cook in the kitchen at home.”

Outcomes like the ones unfolding statewide as a result of the grants are exactly what Debra Garrard-Foster, CNEP state coordinator, associate Extension specialist, was looking to achieve.

“Health, hunger and obesity are societal issues that can be better addressed at the local level by multiple groups in the community,” she said. “Each community has different resources and issues so a blanket approach usually doesn’t work.”

Finding approaches that do work is all the more critical considering findings in the 2014 State of the State’s Health Report, which revealed Oklahoma had the fourth highest rate of death from all causes in the nation, a full 23 percent higher than the national rate.

The report identified several contributing behavioral factors to that mortality rate, including Oklahoma nationally ranking next to the lowest in fruit consumption and 44th lowest in vegetable consumption. The state also was tabbed as the 44th least physically active state in the nation while carrying the sixth highest rate of obesity.

“This project focuses on where people eat, live, work and play,” Garrard-Foster said. “Our goal is to increase access to healthy food thereby making the healthiest choice also the easiest for adults and youth.”

One of the unique ways this grant program is tackling that goal while keeping a sharp eye on sustainability is by including fruit trees and plants to community gardening.

“One apple tree can produce over 500 apples so the initial investment reaps great rewards,” she said. “Our long-term goal is for Extension to address hunger by planting or encouraging homeowners to plant over 1,000 fruit trees/plants across the state.”

This is the first time CNEP has offered the grants, but Garrard-Foster said it most likely will not be the last based the enthusiastic response to the program.

Other counties receiving Health and Hunger grants include Garfield, Kay, Oklahoma, Comanche, Muskogee, Logan, Payne, Johnston, Blaine, Noble and Pittsburg.



Oklahoma State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, State and Local Governments Cooperating: The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, or status as a veteran, and is an equal opportunity employer.

Leilana McKindra
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
140 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-6792
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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