By Dedra Cordle
The Highland Youth Garden honored the life of its founder with the unveiling of a new addition that will further her vision of building stronger children and communities through the power of food.
In late September, the Highland Youth Garden hosted a public ceremony where organizers unveiled the long-planned Peggy Murphy Outdoor Demonstration Kitchen. According to executive director Shelly Casto, the Peggy Murphy Outdoor Demonstration Kitchen will serve as a gathering place where the youth on the westside can learn valuable skills on food preparation and meal planning via the fruits and vegetables harvested from backyard gardens such as the urban oasis located on S. Highland Avenue.
“Peggy’s Kitchen will continue to further one of the core tenants of this garden by providing our children and teenagers with the skillsets they need to nourish themselves, their families, and even their communities now and well into the future,” she said.
Although the outdoor demonstration kitchen built by resident architect Brian Ezzell is not yet fully operational, Casto believes it will be completed in several weeks – just in time to enjoy the autumnal foods that the bountiful garden provides.
“We honestly cannot wait for Peggy’s Kitchen to get up and running,” she said. “We just wish that Peggy could have been around to see this new addition because it furthers her vision of creating stronger bonds through a sense of shared community and good food.”
The idea for the outdoor demonstration kitchen started to take shape about four years ago, shortly before the Groveport resident who considered the westside her “home away from home” lost her life to cancer. It was sparked from the sense of exasperation the adult employees and volunteers who led cooking demonstrations felt when they had to set up observation stations for their young charges.
“It was a whole production,” said Casto. “We had to locate the tables, find a good spot for the tables, set up those tables and then we had to find the dishes and utensils, set up those dishes and utensils, and then somehow arrange it in a way that provided enough space for the children who attended our after-school programs and summer programs to wash up their food and chop up their food and create new meals without jostling their fellow learners.
“We wanted to dramatically cut down on that prep time because we all just wanted to get right into the lessons of teaching. And that is kind of how the idea for the outdoor kitchen came about.”
In the past, Murphy would have been heavily involved with the planning of the new addition and also the procurement of needed funds, individuals with skills, and materials and supplies. Rarely did anyone turn down her request for assistance.
“If she wanted you to do something, she was so strong in her conviction that you had to say yes,” said Jim Warner, a program director for nutrition services at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who also operated the Mobile Education Kitchen during community events at the Highland Youth Garden. “And that’s what I really appreciated about her because she knew what she wanted and she always seemed to get what she wanted. Then once you were in, it was like she put a fish hook in you and just reeled you into whatever she had in store.”
Too weak to truly put forth the amount of time and effort required to help organize the outdoor demonstration kitchen project, Murphy knew that the network she helped put into place when she leased the land for the garden from the Oakley Free Gospel Baptist Church more than a decade ago “on a dollar and a prayer” would see it through. And volunteers and board of trustees did just that with the help of Ezzell, the Greater Columbus Growing Coalition, and an anonymous donor who wanted to continue Murphy’s mission of providing delicious and nutritious foods to adults and children in economically depressed areas.
“That was her vision for this place and everywhere you look you can see the impact she has made,” said Casto. “Even though she was not able to see the completion of this new kitchen that is named in her honor, the impact she made on this community will continue to be felt here for generations to come.”
In attendance at the dedication were a few of the surviving members of her family. Her brother, Joe Parr, came down from Mount Gilead to see the unveiling of the outdoor demonstration kitchen named for his sister. He said that although he was touched by the ceremony, he couldn’t help but think some of it was a dream.
“If someone had told me that Peggy would one day be recognized for her impact on a community through her gardening skills I would have said no way,” he said. “We had such a hard time getting her out there to tend to our family’s garden because she wanted to stay clean, she didn’t like being in the dirt, and she didn’t like the worms.”
However, he said she recognized at a young age the importance of children and families having access to food harvested from local and backyard gardens because it allowed hers to put nutritious meals on the table during tough financial times.
“Our mother didn’t work at the time because she was raising five kids and we lived off my father’s income,” said Parr. “We didn’t have much. We were poor so there were no toys, no nothing. So we did things as a family and played together but that garden was a central point in our lives and it provided us with what we needed.
“I think that is what brought her to realizing that kids and communities in need could really benefit from having a backyard garden to provide food and nutrition to them. That is really what drove her as she became an adult and she had a real commitment to providing that education to low-income neighborhoods so they could get food on their tables and grow stronger communities too.”
Daughter-in-law Lane Murphy echoed a similar sentiment.
“Peggy was all about nourishment,” said Lane. “She wanted to nourish bodies with food, souls with love, and minds with education so they have the skillset to improve their lives through these backyard gardens and the newfound friendships that come with being able to share meals and connect over having those meals.
“She was such a wonderful, caring person and we miss her so much. But it is comforting to know that even though she is no longer around, her passion for this garden and the positive impact it has made on so many lives will continue to be carried on because so many people here share in that passion and are committed to her vision of making the world a better place.”