Across Kansas City — and the country — orchards in unlikely places now have budding fruit trees.
On rolling ground next to a huge railroad station in Kansas City, Kansas, 10 pear trees, six apple trees and two peach trees thrive where piles of construction debris, toilets and tires once sat.
The orchards are part of The Giving Grove’s hits. Since the Kansas City nonprofit began planting gardens and orchards in 2013, its footprint has grown to more than 330 orchards in 10 cities.
In addition to providing fresh food to the communities they serve, Giving Grove Gardens has also cultivated a network of community stewards.
Rob Reiman, CEO of Giving Grove Inc., said they played a vital role in the program.
“It was important for the orchard to be an asset to the neighborhood,” he said.
A community-led asset, not an organization or a city.
“These people are very compassionate,” Reiman added. “They have often lived in the neighborhood the longest and they have many memories of a vibrant community. In their head, they know the potential. They want to do it for the neighborhood.
The Roots of Giving Grove
The concept of Giving Grove’s work is straightforward: to inspire and excite a neighborhood to grow food.
“Underlying all of this success is the neighborhood taking ownership,” Reiman said. “Every time you do that, people get invested in an idea and they stick with it.”
The idea came to Jim Jarsulic when he looked at the debris-filled lot next to a doctor’s office in the 600 block of South 55th Street. The doctor agreed to let Jarsulic – a retired firefighter and longtime resident of the Turner neighborhood in KCK – start a small garden at the top of the hill.
A year later, Calvin Hoover, a retired technician from the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, joined Jarsulic and everything started to take off.
Each year, the pair have added something to the area, which now encompasses four acres. There are privately tended 4-by-12-foot raised beds, two large hoop-shaped houses that extend the growing season, and a passing station for monarch butterflies. They even raise tilapia alongside a hydroponic garden.
The Turner Project also includes a farmers market and a free food stand at a nearby church. The doctor’s office is being transformed into a community centre.
“The kids absolutely loved it,” Jarsulic said. “It’s a neighborhood place. It is better to be in a garden than a place with used glass.
Jursulic and Hoover impressed Wyandotte County Unified Government Commissioner Angela Markley. She first met the couple when she was chair of the board of the Turner Recreation Commission.
“I thought the garden would be a great use of unused space and a wonderful opportunity to build community,” Markley said. “It was both. As well as being a meeting place and a passion project for the dedicated members of the garden team, the garden is a center for community activities, both formal and informal.
Markley said many local young people had no gardening experience until they visited a Giving Grove, which helps provide the trees, supplies and training.
“It connects them to the earth and helps them understand how the science they learn in school is alive around them,” Markley said. “And it helps pave the way for a better understanding of the need to protect and preserve our resources.”
Reiman said it was part of the idea of having the care for the orchards – which could produce for decades – be transferred through a chain of stewards over time.
“So you’re creating a multi-generational food system,” Reiman said.
It didn’t take long to see the other benefits produced by orchards. Reiman spent time visiting residents of the Giving Grove orchards.
“They share their love of the orchard with me and seven out of 10 times the conversation has focused on the community, not the food,” he said.
“They were sharing stories about how rubbish was no longer being dumped in the area. They would share stories about individuals in the neighborhood who might not speak the same language but they would walk into the orchard and they would communicate.
“It’s much, much bigger than food.”
“The whole garden is a learning environment”
About 10 miles east of where Jarsulic and Hoover work, the youngsters discover the orchards overseen by Toni Gatlin.
A resident of the Santa Fe neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, Gatlin oversees five orchards at or near George Washington Carver School, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Hope Leadership Academy, former Martin Luther King Elementary School on Indiana Martin Avenue and the new Luther King Elementary School on Woodland Avenue.
Gatlin is committed to students understanding orchards and how fruits and nuts are produced. And, of course, have a chance to eat the goods.
Gatlin is frustrated with the amount of junk food, candy and cigarettes sold around her orchards.
“It’s not a food desert, it’s a food swamp,” she said.
In addition to learning about healthier food choices, orchards teach children about nature.
“The whole garden is a learning environment,” she said. “It’s important for every child to know.”
Gatlin’s favorite time in the orchards might be when the kids try the fruit from the trees for the first time.
“It’s surprise and awe when they’ve tasted something they’ve never had before,” she said. “Then they want more…that’s what I work for.
“I want them to know how good food tastes. I want them to know that broccoli doesn’t need to be soaked. If I could put an orchard anywhere, I would.
Dina Newman, director of the Center for Neighborhoods in the Department of Architecture, Planning and Design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says there are so many benefits.
“Green spaces – orchards, gardens, urban farms – help improve the environment, help reduce stress, and studies show they can reduce crime,” she said. “Accessibility to fresh, healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables solves the problems of food insecurity experienced by so many communities. For some, there is a disconnect between the land and the food system – many have forgotten or never knew how to grow their food.
The opportunity for orchards, Reiman said, will always be there.
“There will always be a need for green spaces in our communities. There will always be a need to create these safe destinations for people to reconnect with nature. And there will always be a need to create free access to healthy food for people who simply don’t have enough.
This story originally appeared on the Kansas City Beacon, another member of the KC Media Collective.