From the Ground Up: Improving Community Health
Through Collaboration 

In each community garden, among the dozens of beds and hundreds of plants craning their necks for the sun and burying their feet to find water, there are countless stories being cultivated right alongside one another. Sometimes these stories can be difficult to find. Like the first ripe tomato of the season hiding beneath the cover of dozens of leaves, you must go searching. Others stand out tall and proud like the Mammoth sunflower in August. Such is the story of Charles, a long-time community gardener with St. Mary’s Nutrition Center (Nutrition Center).

Charles, like many Nutrition Center gardeners, returned for another season of growing. As in the season before, his growth did not stop at the edges of the garden, but wound its way out into the world and into his everyday life. Charles has been both unabashed in sharing his growth and struggle, and consistent in reminding us of the sustaining role the gardens play in people’s lives. He tells us that the garden gives him not only good food to eat, but an outlet and something beautiful. Charles, a recovering addict, clean for more than 5 years, says the garden is his new "positive" addiction.

What the St. Mary's Nutrition Center provides overall helps in many ways and this community needs that. There have been times in my life that I wanted to die. Now I don't want to die; I want to be happy and to grow.

Charles' story calls attention not just to the seasonal benefit, but the sustaining impact community gardens play in people's lives, and the incredible importance of investing in place, neighborhood, and one another. What would happen if Charles couldn’t walk out his front door and go into his garden? That is why the Nutrition Center works to invest in Lewiston and strives to build healthier lives by collaborating with others to create, coordinate and care for community gardens.

Examining the Soil Conditions

About St. Mary’s Nutrition Center and Lewiston, Maine

Established by St. Mary’s Health System, a member of Covenant Health, the long-term goal of the Nutrition Center is to build a viable, just food system, while supporting local leaders, strengthening community ties, and engaging youth as agents of change. The Nutrition Center operates on the belief that equity in our food system is deeply tied to inequity within our community, and that a whole-person, and whole-community, approach is critical to creating long-term change. Located in a previously vacant, but beautiful, historic school building in the midst of downtown Lewiston, Maine’s most economically challenged neighborhoods, the Nutrition Center serves families, youth, adults, elders and refugees across the city’s many diverse communities with a focus on those who have limited incomes and an increased risk for food insecurity.  

Situated on the Androscoggin River next to its sister City of Auburn, Lewiston was once a thriving mill town. However, by the 1980’s the city suffered a massive manufacturing decline- the economic boom had past, the river was depleted, and the once vibrant downtown centers became blighted. Renewed interest and investment in the region was just beginning in the late 1990’s when in 2001 an influx of African immigrants, primarily from Somalia and Kenya, started to fill the empty houses and invigorate the businesses.

© DanMarquisPhotography, used with permission

© DanMarquisPhotography, used with permission

Waves of migration continued thereafter resulting in an estimated 10,000 immigrants and asylum seekers settling in Lewiston-Auburn (L-A). Immigrants came primarily from Central and East Africa and now live alongside descendants from the original Western European and French-Canadian settlers. 

The transformation of the demographic and cultural landscape is evident across Lewiston’s main commercial street. Once-vacant storefronts have been filled by small African-owned stores, and more recently, by other entrepreneurs committed to bringing a renaissance to Lewiston's downtown with restaurants, shops, and upper-level apartments and community-centered events. 

Source: Sun Journal

Lewiston Farmers Market

Unfortunately, despite the increase in investment, poverty and food insecurity remain a serious problem in Lewiston. Of only 36,000 people, almost one-fourth (22.2%) live in poverty. The city’s poverty rate for children under five years old is 48%, twice the state average. Downtown Lewiston is home to three of the poorest census tracts in the state. The number of residents living at 200% below the Federal Poverty Line in these “extreme poverty tracts” reaches 87%

Given the extensive poverty and health challenges in Lewiston, providing education and increasing food access is a critical strategy for building resiliency at an individual, family, and community level. This work cannot be done effectively in a silo or with one strategy alone. The Nutrition Center, along with many changemakers in Lewiston, is using multipronged approaches, thoughtful collaboration, and authentic community engagement as a means to create positive change.

Sowing the Seeds

Creation of the First Community Gardens in Lewiston

In the spring of 1999, the Nutrition Center’s Lots to Gardens program created the first community garden at a public housing complex on the outskirts of Lewiston. In partnership with the Lewiston Housing Authority, Lots to Gardens provided 14 families living at the complex with the tools and guidance to plant, tend, and harvest their own garden plot. The following year, the Nutrition Center turned its attention to the many vacant lots in downtown Lewiston. In partnership with the City of Lewiston, and through the engagement of local teenagers and residents, the Nutrition Center began to transform the lots into green spaces and community vegetable gardens.

The urban gardens ranged in size from a city lot (typically 100 ft. X 50 ft.), to the largest garden, at a quarter-acre. All food grown in community gardener plots was harvested and consumed by the gardeners and their families with support from the Nutrition Center’s Community Gardeners Program. Once in the program, the Nutrition Center provided seeds and seedlings, tools and instruction, and weekly hands-on support in gardens and monthly gardener workshops on a variety of topics. The Nutrition Center continues to use this same model today.

In addition to providing residents a place to grow food for themselves and their families, gardens acted as outdoor classrooms that provide unique opportunities for community engagement, build neighborhood pride, and encourage residents to care for communal city space.

Through the transformation of vacant lots into community gardens, the Nutrition Center witnessed first hand the ways in which gardens could serve as a bright spot in neighborhoods affected by poverty, act as a catalyst for change and support the creation of healthier, more resilient communities.

Having the garden was an avenue opener in every aspect. My son loves to eat the veggies, I got out more and got to know my neighbors, we had a great community this summer. I didn't feel like I lived in the projects because it didn't look or feel like the projects when I came out and saw the beautiful gardens. The garden changed how I look at food. The garden has made me happier.

-Community Gardener

Tending the Ground Together

Co-creating Community and Learning Gardens with the Schools, Municipalities and Community Partners

Of the early community gardens the Nutrition Center created, two were exclusively devoted to providing young people the opportunity to grow and try fresh vegetables right from the ground, learn alongside each other and build healthy habits early on. To complement the gardens, cooking clubs were held in partnership with a local housing complex and the public library; places where many children naturally spent time. In order to expand the reach to and deepen engagement with children, the Nutrition Center sought partnerships with neighborhood schools. It was not until 2011 however, when we joined the inaugural year of Food Corps, that we were able to build the first school garden at Longley Elementary School.

A neighborhood school where 100% of the children were living in some form of poverty, the Longley School garden and related after school programs provided children, parents and teachers a valuable opportunity to grow, prepare, and cook fresh vegetables while also encouraging essential leadership and team building skills. Inspired by the garden, the school district's food service director enlisted the after school cooking club to help create healthy menus that would be more widely accepted by the student body. Since then, the cooking club has continued to serve as a student-focused test kitchen to develop and try out kid-friendly menu items to be included in the district's school lunch menu.

In addition to creating gardens across Lewiston elementary schools, working with elementary and high school students to change their school cafeteria, and building more after school Food Clubs, the Nutrition Center took the lead on collaborations that would support positive change across the district. This included leading the Androscoggin Farm to School Network, and supporting the Auburn and Lewiston School Districts in a USDA Farm to School Planning grant to support schools in developing sustainable garden and nutrition programs. In 2017, we engaged 43 area teachers and garden educators in Farm to School training opportunities. 

Inspired by the success of collaborations around school gardens and Farm to School initiatives, the Nutrition Center brought energy across the river to support the creation of the first community gardens in the City of Auburn. Fostering a truly cross-sector collaboration and seeking a sustainable approach from the onset, the Nutrition Center led the formation of the Auburn Community Gardens Initiative (ACGI) in 2014. A collaboration between the Nutrition Center, the City of Auburn, Androscoggin Land Trust, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, the National Park Service River Trails and Conservation Assistance Program (interim member), and Auburn residents, the initiative sought to create three gardens over five years across three distinct and underserved neighborhoods. The ACGI was able to leverage City Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds and other small grants and build the Webster Street Community Garden in a low-income neighborhood adjacent to a public housing complex and a youth drop-in center.

The City of Auburn's first community garden, the Webster Street Community Garden, had a very successful first full season. Feedback from community gardeners exceeded projected outcomes and the majority of gardeners returned for a second year.

Say somebody raises broccoli and they have a whole field of it, this picture they'd think nothing of it. But for me, that was my first broccoli I've ever grow. To me, it was a masterpiece

-Community Gardener

In 2017, the Nutrition Center helped secure a former house lot adjacent to the Androscoggin River for a second community garden in Auburn. The Newbury Street Garden will have more than 30 beds and is slated to have its first full growing season in the summer of 2018. For both gardens, members of the ACGI knocked on neighborhood doors to gather feedback and met with city officials to better understand the history of the sites and the role of gardens in the revitalization of the city's downtown.

Continuing the wisdom gained from the collaborative model of the ACGI, the Nutrition Center worked with a cohort of downtown Lewiston organizations to create another community garden in the fall of 2017. After purchasing the vacant lot next to their headquarters, staff and members of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative partnered with the Somali Bantu Community Association, the Root Cellar, and the Maine People's Resource Center to talk with over 70 people in the neighborhood. When asked what should happen at the location, a majority of residents said they wanted a community vegetable garden. Slated to have its first growing season the summer of 2018, the Heart and Soil Community Garden is located in the heart of downtown and will serve approximately 20 households. Additionally, after many years of planning, the Nutrition Center is in the second phase of creating a learning garden on-site at the Center.

As of Summer 2018, the Nutrition Center supports in some way nineteen community, school and learning gardens across Lewiston-Auburn including 9 community gardens where families and individuals can grow food for themselves. All combined, gardens across Lewiston-Auburn will provide more than 200 low-income households the opportunity to grow food for themselves. Through partnerships with the schools, the Nutrition Center offers garden and food club programs for children at five elementary schools and one middle school. The program reaches more than 2000 students in over 60 classrooms and afterschool sites including four neighborhood teaching and learning gardens where kids and teens learn and harvest food for their families. 

In 2016-17, the Nutrition Center participated as a member of the Building Committee of the Lewiston School Board to support the planning and design of the new consolidated elementary school, which was approved by voters in June 2017. This school will also be the home to a new school garden designed alongside teachers and students to accommodate the 800+ student body.

Bringing Home the Harvest, Sharing the Bounty

Learning Lessons and Following Paths to Greater Impact

Today, gardens across Lewiston-Auburn serve as community anchors and are woven into the fabric of everyday life. Children growing up near a garden just assume that they are normal part of a neighborhood.

To get to this point however, many lessons first needed to be learned, including:

-Participatory ways to engage residents and neighborhoods.

-How to secure long-term use of land including improving zoning ordinances and incorporating community gardens into municipal development planning.

-How to have gardens not only support greater food access but build community and stabilize neighborhoods.

-How to enlist the support of municipalities and strategic partners.

-What is needed to sustain programs and efforts.

-What are important garden design and layout considerations.

-Equity must be at the forefront and that we must take cues from community members directly affected by inequity to help guide our work.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned was the realization that garden programs would not usher in broad community change all on their own. However, embedded among or supported by other strategies their impact could be amplified, deepened and sustained. Throughout our community work, we also began to recognize how important is to play a convening role, particularly in communities with limited resources, and serve as a consistent backbone support to leverage capacity, talent, resources, and leadership towards broader goals. 

To this end, the Nutrition Center began intentionally engaging in opportunities and partnerships that widened the scope of our work and complemented our existing garden programs.

One significant endeavor we pursued was leading a multi-year, collaborative Community Food Assessment (CFA) with community partners, academic partners and residents in 2010. The goal of the assessment was to examine the food access landscape of Lewiston while simultaneously raising community dialogue about food access issues and building partner, neighbor, and municipal buy-in. 

Unique in its scope and focus, the CFA provided critical insight into the realities of the day-to-day food access struggles and strategies of Lewiston’s downtown residents, as well as the structural and capacity gaps our community food system faced. These insights guided program and partnership development at the Nutrition Center, and helped us identify strategic areas in need of leadership and investment, including fresh food access and school gardens. The CFA was also critical in launching the Good Food Council of Lewiston-Auburn in 2013 and in turn the Lewiston-Auburn Community Food Charter

Other initiatives and programs the Nutrition Center help develop and continue to lead are the:

     -year-round Lewiston Farmers’ Market

     -Good Food Bus, a regional mobile market, led alongside founding partners, Cultivating Community and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.

    -Maine Network of Community Food Councils

    -Healthy Neighborhoods Planning Council, where we along with the City and other partners supported administrative and planning efforts for the first three years and leveraged a $1.3 million dollar Planning and Action grant through HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program.

These and other endeavors allow us to expand upon, strengthen and sustain the work that happens in the gardens, and provides opportunities to help replicate the work in other communities.

Season Reflections

Saving the Seeds of Learning and Carrying the Work Forward Together

Twenty years after the first garden in Lewiston, the Nutrition Center has not slowed in its effort to support greater access to good food and increased engagement and connection through community and school garden initiatives. What has evolved over that time is the commitment and depth at which the Nutrition Center collaborates to achieve its goals. We have learned that it "takes a village" to build a garden that truly has community at the heart. It takes this same village to sustain and care for that garden for generations to come and build a healthier, more just community for all. We are happy to be part of the village building alongside others, one garden bed at a time.