August 1, 2008

When you're worried about putting food in your children's mouths, the American Dream can be just that - a dream. But in Russell County, the Hispanic Gardening Project led by the Cooperative Extension Services of both University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University is making each day a little bit easier for a few families.

Pam York, family and consumer sciences extension agent, Wanda Miick, small farm program assistant, and translator Marisol Rosado work closely with six Latin American families, managing a 1.5 acre garden plot. This is the second year for the project.

"We know that there are people in the county who don't have enough fresh vegetables and fruits to eat, and we know that people sometimes don't always have enough food to eat," Miick said. "That's where the idea sprang from."

York advertised the garden in her weekly newspaper column this spring. It was open to anyone who wanted to participate, but only Hispanic families called to take advantage of the opportunity.

"They have shown a great interest in learning to grow a garden. They're excited," she said. "They have so much enthusiasm, and that's what is so rewarding. And no matter how hot it is, no matter how many hours we stay and work, that's fine (with them)."

Situated on a plot of land on a farm owned by York's father, Frankie Antle, the garden in mid-summer is ripe with corn, a variety of peppers, both white and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, squash, cucumbers, pinto beans, watermelons and cantaloupes. Families had a say in some of the things that were planted, and other crops were chosen because they're common to the area.

Miick oversees the planting, tending and harvesting of the crops. It's been a learning experience for everyone. For the most part, the families had no experience with gardening.

"I was surprised at that because I assumed that they did, because tomatoes come from Mexico," she said. "It's all been a teaching process."

That process included showing the families how to plant seeds, how to identify and, if necessary, spray for harmful insects and plant diseases, as well as how to hook up an irrigation system.

Rosado, who was a home economics teacher in her native Puerto Rico, is not only acting as a translator for the group, but she also is sharing the workload in the garden. She said the experience has been eye-opening to her and to the other participants.

"Every time that we went there to the garden, it was a surprise and a learning experience, because it was not the way that we do it in our countries," she said.

The project doesn't end at harvest, but continues into the kitchen where York teaches the ins and outs of canning and freezing food safely. On one summer day in July, six women met in the kitchen at the Russell County extension office, where they prepared salsa, canned tomatillos and froze ears of corn.

"In the winter months, many of the Hispanic families do not have work, or they don't have a steady income. For them to be able to have their own food to eat in the winter months, to me that is making a difference," York said.

The gardening project has touched other aspects of these families' lives, as well.

"We've gotten pretty close to some of these families, working with them so many hours at a time throughout the whole season, over several months with the gardening project. So we're actually trying to help them with other needs that they have," she said.

Russell County extension has recently added an Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program. Julie Beckmann, the new EFNEP assistant, will be enrolling some of these families in the program, which teaches sound nutrition and food budgeting practices.

York is currently on the lookout for two or three free, or inexpensive, freezers to store the bounties of this year's harvest. They are also trying to find more suitable housing for a couple of the families right now, at their request.

The gardening project has been made possible through the support of several businesses and agencies. Lake Cumberland Community Services Organization and local producers with greenhouse operations helped by supplying seeds and transplants. Extension program support money was also used. Extension agents in other counties donated their surplus canning supplies, and the families themselves provided some of the supplies, such as freezer bags and jar lids. Kentucky State University paid for tomato stakes and supplied a new garden tiller, which

York said they desperately needed. Jamestown Utilities let them hook into a nearby water hydrant and gave them a good rate for the water.

"It would be impossible to water the garden by the drip line irrigation system without them agreeing to let us do that," York said.

The benefits of the project are not only that the families have access to nutritious meals, but through it, they have become more integrated into the community.

"I think they're going to feel more part of this community," Rosado said. "They are sharing with the people from here, so they're excited about that."