Youth Garden offers Fresh Food Program

By Christine Bryant
Staff Writer

Pictured here (from left to right, bottom) are Julie Bowman (board member), Jasmin Sanjuan (teen employee), Katie Carey (lead educator); (top) Anna Siriano (volunteer), Charlie Richardson (lead gardener), Luul Sheikh (teen employee), and Shelly Casto (executive director) with the Highland Youth Garden.

The Highland Youth Garden has kicked off a new program that will help ensure Hilltop families get the fresh produce they need – now and through the coronavirus pandemic.

The Fresh Food Bag program at the community garden, located off Highland Avenue, allows individuals to drive up and point to the produce they wish to take home. Volunteers will then gather the produce and load it into the individual’s vehicle.

The half-acre plot of land that sits at 67 S. Highland Ave. just south of West Broad Street, is home to a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although the selection that is available changes throughout the season, currently, items like swiss chard, lettuce and herbs are ready for harvest. As the temperatures continue to warm up, produce like tomatoes, squash and beans will be available.

“It’s a pretty full range of what grows well in Ohio,” said Shelly Casto, executive director of the Highland Youth Garden. “We will have berries later, too.”

All staff members and volunteers are masked and wear gloves, she said. Residents may walk up to receive the produce as well, though are required to stand a certain distance behind the tables.

So far this season, the garden has provided fresh produce to about 100 individuals over the course of three sessions.

Up until this spring, life at the garden looked somewhat different. Residents could peruse the medley of fruits and vegetables available in person. Children were often seen playing in the dirt and learning the origins of their food. Volunteers stood side-by-side, cultivating the land to help fill the needs of residents of the Hilltop, which local advocates say is a food desert.

“Obviously we can’t gather in groups, but the good news is, we are outside,” Casto said.

This has allowed volunteers and staff to continue to tend to the garden over the past few months – while practicing social distancing – so that residents with an immediate need for fresh food can be assisted.

“We’re excited that the fresh food bag distribution is helping us connect directly with our immediate neighborhood,” Casto said. “That’s really important to us to dig deep in our neighborhood.”

Casto says despite these temporary precautions put into place, organizers are still working on future plans for when conditions improve.

“We’re all planned up for people to come into the garden later in the summer, as well as for school trips if those start up again,” she said. “We are in a position to do that if it’s determined to be safe.”

In the meantime, the group has created take-home kits for children that go home with the fresh food bags. These kits include agricultural learning activities kids can do from the safety of their home.

The organization has also begun offering online gardening tutorials with the help of OSU Extension educators. The live Zoom webinars, which include topics like container gardening, allow individuals to ask questions and interact with one another. Upcoming sessions are announced on the Highland Youth Garden Facebook page.

“We’re trying to remain flexible and assume that in the future we’ll be able to go back to what we normally do, but realize things may change,” Casto said.

Casto, who recently took over as executive director for the organization, says it was the coronavirus and the impact on the community that was the driving force behind serving in this capacity.

“I spent 17 years as the education director at the Wexner Center for the Arts, and left in December. I took some time off, and then the COVID disaster hit,” she said. “For me, it made a lot of sense to dig deep in the community to do some direct work.”

Pickup times for the fresh food bags will continue through the gardening season on Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon. Reservations are not required, and there is no cost for the produce, though donations are accepted.

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