CLEVELAND — Anita Gardner wants to see her community, the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Cleveland, thrive. That’s why she founded the Concerned Citizens Community Council, in 2008, to help address some of the needs she saw in her neighborhood. And more recently, that’s why she helped launch Crooked Branch Farms, an urban farm focused on growing vegetables and fruits for the community.
This year, Crooked Branch Farms was designated as one of the first U.S. Department of Agriculture People’s Gardens nationwide, an honor given to gardens or farms in urban areas that benefit the communities around them.
“All we do is assist our community and try our best to glue up some of the cracks,” Gardner said. “Our job is to put the ‘neighbor’ back in front of ‘hood.'”
The USDA’s People’s Garden initiative recognizes gardens that help communities grow local food and teach about the benefits of local and sustainable agriculture. The USDA originally launched the initiative in 2009, then renewed it in 2022 with a garden in Washington, D.C., as well as 17 gardens in urban communities across the country.
To be designated as a People’s Garden, a garden has to benefit the community by providing food, wildlife habitat, education or beautification, be a collaborative effort, use sustainable practices and educate the public about sustainable practices and the importance of local, diverse healthy food.
People’s Gardens across the U.S. vary based on the needs of their communities, with some focused on food production, like Crooked Branch Farms, and others focused on things including habitat for pollinators or conservation.
The USDA presented Gardner with a certificate of appreciate in early September for helping to establish the first People’s Garden in Cleveland.
“It was an honor, and I was floored,” Gardner said, about the People’s Garden designation. “It was just a team effort. And then when the vegetables came up, we were so proud to give them away.”
They started the garden in 2017. The group was already doing a lot of work to help provide food, clothes and other services to community members in need, but they had land around and behind their headquarters that wasn’t being used.
A nearby neighbor urged them to add a hoop house to the lot, so they could grow more local food to give away. Gardner was hesitant at first — hoop houses are expensive — but the Concerned Citizens were able to get a grant from the USDA for the hoop house, so they moved forward.
But while the grant covered the costs of the hoop house, the group still didn’t know a lot about gardening or how to set up their infrastructure.
Envision Cleveland, an organization focused on building stronger neighborhoods in the city, did much of the work to get the hoop house set up. Rid-All Green Partnership, another urban farm in Cleveland, helped teach them how to set up the hoop house and build the raised beds they needed to get started.
Envision Cleveland has continued to do much of the work to manage the farm. That kind of collaboration has been essential for the Concerned Citizens — the organization is run by just three people, Gardner, White and Patricia Henderson, but with help from other organizations and volunteers, they’ve been able to do a lot over the years.
“What makes me a good leader is, I get out of people’s way, and I let them do what they say they’re going to do. I just help with what they need,” Gardner said.
The Concerned Citizens Community Council is involved in a wide range of work in the Mount Pleasant community. They offer a food pantry, after school meals for youth, programs for seniors and more.
The group gives away the vegetables they grow in the gardens. Having those available for free to the community is important to them. A lot of people in the community don’t have access to fresh vegetables, whether because it’s difficult for them to get to a grocery store, or because of the cost. Gardner is also making recipe cards to help people learn how to prepare vegetables that they may not be as familiar with.
“The community really needs it,” said Thelma White, treasurer for the Concerned Citizens. “They really love the fact that it’s fresh vegetables.”
The farm has come a long way in the last few years, and the Concerned Citizens and their partners are already making plans and taking steps towards expanding it more. Volunteers are currently working on putting up another two hoop houses, which will be hydroponic, on the lot. Down the road, they are planning to add chickens and goats, and an orchard.
“I’m loving this, I really am,” Gardner said. “This is going to be everything I hoped it would be, and more.”
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