Healthy Eating In The Valley: Community Gardens for the Soul

May 17, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Healthy Eating in the Valley, Mental Health, Tom Sims

by Tom Sims

Enjoy this next Healthy Eating In The Valley column. Let us know what you think and if you have any suggestions of your own for us to check out! In future articles watch for some articles on local places to eat healthy.

It just so happens that healthy food not only makes healthy bodies, but making healthy food can keep minds healthy as well.

Among the community gardens in Fresno are some special gardens tended by elders who find peace, serenity, and purpose in the process of growing vegetables. In that same process, they produce food for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. It is healthy food, grown with their own hands from soil they have nurtured with skills they and their families have possessed for generations.

The most reliable way to know what you are eating is to grow it yourself. That is one reason for growing food. Another is the way it calls the soul to dig in the soil. sign

Collaborating with churches across the Fresno area, Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) facilitates community gardens, at Memorial United Methodist and Mennonite Community Church, and at the FIRM headquarters as well as in other places. These are for refugee families and they promote food security, physical and mental health. Tony Bounthapanya is a manager with the Community Gardens Program. garden

I mention Tony, because I ask him a lot of questions about my own garden and he always does two things:
He answers my questions.

He reassures me that I will not mess things up. He and his wife, Tout Tou, who also works for FIRM teaching health and mental health, raise their own very successful and bountiful garden at home.
He enjoys making things grow and watching people grow. He loves being a father to his children and a husband to his wife. They are also his garden. He believes that God places the right people together for a reason. He also believes in the value and wisdom of elders. He respects them and desires to offer them the dignity they deserve, but so often are denied.


Tout Tou and Tony

People grow in the therapeutic gardens.

A feeling of reassurance and wellbeing is what many people experience in their gardens, especially elders from other countries and cultures living in a strange land. Some are living alone for the first time. Some are alone during the day and even that is strange to them. Some, for the first time, have nowhere to plant their own gardens and that is an extreme shock to their psyches.


East Fresno Slavic Garden

In 2011, the Mental Health Services Act – Prevention and Early Intervention (MHSA PEI) funds were made available for FIRM and other agencies to establish these gardens. “The passage of Proposition 63 (now known as the Mental Health Services Act or MHSA) in November 2004, provided for the California Department of Mental Health (DMH) to, according the state, “provide increased funding, personnel and other resources to support county mental health programs and monitor progress toward statewide goals for children, transition age youth, adults, older adults and families.”

California’s website says, “The Act addresses a broad continuum of prevention, early intervention and service needs and the necessary infrastructure, technology and training elements that will effectively support this system.”

One of the very simple approaches to preventive care follows recent research suggesting that people from agrarian backgrounds, as well as others, find deep satisfaction in planting and tending crops. When they work with their hands, their souls are healed. When they work in community, their social needs are met.

FIRM says that, “The American Therapeutic Therapy Association recognizes that gardening can be used to instill respect, duty, and connection to life…and becomes a useful tool in helping people cope with mental illness, trauma, or behavior difficulties. For refuges, immigrants, and others from war torn and conflicted environments, the gardens will provide a critical ‘point of access’ for family support resources, and will help communities support health and wellbeing through culturally appropriate practices.”


The garden at FIRM

FIRM is the fiscal agent and one of several groups that have been assembled to form the Therapeutic Horticultural Program focusing on food security, education, support and outreach around issues of mental health: depression, isolation, PTSD and other issues.

Each garden has a shelter space where “well-being training” and education and outreach on mental health topics takes place.

Community gardening is a movement in the Fresno area. Mental health is one aspect of it. I’ll be dropping in on some other community garden programs from time to time including the one in my own yard!
The Therapeutic Horticultural Program is also seeing success. Happy, healthy faces are producing smiles and meals! Since its beginning in 2011, there has always been a bountiful crop of food and a happy band of gardeners.


Sharing a Meal of the Harvest

Like any program that receives public funding, the community gardens are under constant scrutiny and are being evaluated for results. Cost effectiveness and value of serve are always factors. These seeds are judged by their annual harvest.

It was an early planting season and yet, one that has experienced some unusual weather. My friend the Master Gardner tells me to keep putting seeds in the ground and see what happens. I will. So far, I am seeing success.

We shall see who has the biggest crop of tomatoes this year.

For what it’s worth, I am excited about mine, by I am betting on FIRM!

For more information, to find out if there are any vegetables for sale, or to visit, support, volunteer, or donate, contact Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM), 1940 N. Fresno Street, Fresno CA 93703, 559-487-1500. You can also visit the FIRM website.

In the meantime, here are several take-away lessons for you to boost your own health, mentally and physically:
1. Plant a garden. Ask the person at the nursery what is best to plant and plant it. Start small, even if it is just a few pots on your patio.
2. Plant it in good soil that you have cultivated with organic materials.
3. Make sure you have a chair near your garden.
4. Go to your garden every day and talk to your plants, baby them, admire them, water them, and weed around them.
5. Then sit in your chair and think, meditate, pray, or whatever you do – even if it is only 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Dream about the harvest.
6. Watch things grow.
7. Then, harvest and eat. That tiny little expression of whatever it is will be the most delicious thing you will have eaten in years.

You will have raised a garden and nurtured your own inner universe.

Healthy eating and healthy living to you!

Supportive Documents on Therapeutic Gardening and Preventive Mental Health can be found on these websites & many others:

You can find more of Tom’s columns here. Keep up with all of Tom’s writing by following him on Twitter @tomsims

Tom Sims is a local pastor (and Grandpa!), writer, and blogger. His congregation, “The Fellowship of Joy,” is part of a larger collaborative called “4141 Ministries,” of which he is Executive Director & he is an active Toastmaster. You can also find him on Facebook.




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