LUMBERTON — Robeson County kids are exhibiting an odd symptom this summer — green thumbs.
Through a local summer camp, kids ages 5 to 12 have been learning about the importance of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, and, with the help of the Food for Thought Community Garden, how to plant, grow and pick them.
The Lumberton Recreation Department’s summer camp and Southeastern Health’s Project HEALTH have been collaborating for several years to bring nutrition education to the county’s youth during the school year and the summer. For the first time this year, the campers visited the community garden to cap off the nutrition education portion of their summer camp session.
On Wednesday morning, campers harvested cherry tomatoes, planted squash and made markers to identify each crop at the garden, which is located at the corner of Pine and Sixth streets. The gardeners-in-training were also presented with certificates for completing the program, and awards like Best Helper.
“The kids, for a lot of them, it’s their first time really getting out and seeing ‘oh, this is where a cantaloupe comes from,’ or ‘that’s what a squash plant looks like’,” said BreAnna Branch, who founded the Food for Thought garden.
Aside from learning where food really comes from, the kids also learned about the nutritional differences between fresh and canned produce.
Nutrition education is crucial in Robeson County, which sees high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and is home to many fast-food restaurants.
“If we teach our little people how to be healthy, they can go home and help Mommy and Daddy be healthy,” said Carlotta Winston, health promotion specialist for Southeastern Health’s Community Health Services Department, which is over Project HEALTH.
Winston said she had planned for the campers to receive their dose of nutrition education by touring Lowes Foods. After that fell through, Winston began talking to Branch about involving the garden.
Working in the garden provided a hands-on element to all that talk about diet.
“I think it combines everything a kid loves,” Branch said. “They get to get out, they get to get dirty, there’s food involved.”
Winston said literally seeing the fruits of their labor also gives the children a sense of ownership.
“It helps build their confidence, it helps build leadership skills,” she said.
The campers aren’t the only kids to get their hands dirty at the Food for Thought community garden. On Wednesday night, hands gripping bright green bell peppers or pale yellow squash shot up from the greenery constantly, accompanied by “Ms. Branch, is this one ready?” and “Look at this one!” as Living Waters Ministry Youth Group helped Branch harvest vegetables.
“We kind of view it as a game system, like who can pick the most tomatoes …,” Branch said.
Food For Thought Community Garden was started in April 2013 to provide fresh, healthy food to those in need. Most of the produce, which is all organic, is donated to the Lumberton Christian Care Center.
The garden was originally behind Storage Solutions, where a hal acre was planted each season. After receiving a grant from the Robeson Road Runners in May to build 20 garden beds, the community garden was moved to its current location, which Branch said is more visible and less labor-intensive than the traditional row garden at the first site. Branch said interest in the garden has been growing since, especially with the installment of a big, green sign at the corner of Pine and Sixth streets.
Volunteers from the Lumberton High School Beta Club, the Lumberton Woman’s Club, Troop 33 of the Boy Scouts, First Baptist Youth Group, and Living Waters Ministry Youth Group helped seed the garden and it now grows tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplant, cantaloupe, okra, beans, carrots, peppers and collards.
Anyone interested in gardening, whether they have experience or not, can lend a hand by planting and picking produce, pulling weeds or donating supplies. Gardeners can also “adopt” a bed, like the Lumberton Community Relations Committee recently did, or plant a container garden to take home.
In order to keep the garden going, a fundraiser will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 9 at the Carolina Civic Center. Attendees can sample food, watch “Edible City: A Documentary Film about the Good Food Movement,” and enter a raffle to win a basket of local products. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $8 for children 12 and under and adults 55 and older.
To volunteer or purchase tickets, call Branch at 910-374-0018 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on Food For Thought Community Garden visit facebook.com/foodforthoughtcommunitygarden.