NIAGARA FALLS – Throughout the summer and into fall, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s “Creating Healthy Places” grant has encouraged volunteers to plant gardens as part of an effort to improve community access to healthy foods.
Grant coordinator Natalie M. Cook noted that gardens at school sites encourage schoolchildren to be part of the program.
“Cornell Cooperative Extension has helped with gardens for years, but our particular grant, which is in its third year, has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars from the New York State Department of Health,” Cook said.
The gardens are just one facet of the program, which also works with after-school children to encourage healthy eating and physical activity, cutting back on “screen time” pursuits, including television and video games.
She said the program also works to help reduce fees for members of the community for gym memberships and fitness centers.
“We also have a corner store initiative to try and get stores to offer more healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables – whether they are frozen, canned or preferably fresh,” Cook said. “Not a lot of places, especially in the City of Niagara Falls, have those options. So we try to help them build that demand as a business opportunity and as a healthy option.”
“Sometimes this is all people have access to,” Cook added.
This year, the Creating Healthy Places program worked with 13 community gardens, which planted enough produce to feed the equivalent of 11 people the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended allotment of fruit and vegetables for an entire year.
In a community with high rates of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, the gardens make a healthy impact in residents’ lives, said Jennifer R. Grier, a Cooperative Extension spokeswoman.
Cook said this is the first year the program expanded beyond Niagara Falls.
Community gardens were established at:
• Abate Elementary School, Niagara Falls.
• Niagara Falls High School.
• Niagara Falls Culinary Institute rooftop garden.
• St. James Church’s Community Mission Gardens of Compassion, Niagara Falls.
• Greenprint Garden Incubator at Main and Walnut streets, Niagara Falls.
• Niagara Arts and Cultural Center Summer Kids Program, Niagara Falls.
• Aurora House, Lockport.
• Opportunities Unlimited residential homes and day rehabilitation sites in Niagara Falls and Wheatfield.
• Highland Community Vegetable Garden, Niagara Falls.
“Overall we hope to create more community access and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Cook, who also emphasized community participation “in physical activity in safe convenient places.”
Cook said that this is the third year of a five-year program, with the goal extending it well into the future.
“It’s gone really well,” she said.
“ We had a lot of interest and a lot of groups that are able to keep this going on their own. We can help them get started and give them the tools, but they really have the devotion to do it themselves, which is great.”
“That’s what you need to keep this active,” Cook said. “The intention is that anyone we help can add this asset to their community.”