With the shocking levels of violence that just don’t seem to let up, even the most thick-skinned among us may start to feel like the world is just collapsing on itself. Humanity starts to seem like an endangered species.

So that made it doubly refreshing to sit at a picnic bench in Augusta County, VA (Shenandoah) amid a field of tomatoes, blackberries and Swiss chard, and learn how a non-profit farm is getting kids to actually want to eat vegetables and how the community keeps chipping in to keep it, well, growing.

Project Grows is the brainchild of Regional Partners for Prevention Services (RPPS), which saw a disturbing trend in lifestyle habits and chronic diseases surfacing in a community health assessment.
For example, the study estimated that 77% of the region ate fewer than five servings of fruit and vegetables and over half (56%) were overweight or obese. Not surprisingly, the rates of chronic and preventable diseases were also high.

Interim executive director Jenna Clarke acknowledged that “there hasn’t been a lot of improvement” yet in health outcomes but she is hopeful that will change as the program continues and health analyses become more in-depth. The top three areas of concern in a recent preliminary survey were obesity and nutrition, mental health issues and substance abuse, according to an Augusta News-Leader news article.

Much of the 50,000 pounds of the produce grown in 2015 was donated to the Blue Ridge Community Food Bank, the Boys and Girls Club, and other service organizations to help area residents get access to healthier food. The rest was sold at weekly farmers’ markets.

Ironically, Project Grows sometimes faces Funding Shrinks. For example, they had to curtail popular cooking classes when funds dried up; they hosted 3,000 kids last year but another 7,000 kids would be eligible to participate. It’s the proverbial shoestring operation but the community’s generosity helps patch the holes. One man donated a John Deere tractor and a greenhouse. Yes, an entire greenhouse. “We get a lot of help,” said Clarke, citing other community donations such as wheelbarrows and a deer fence.

Seeing the kids excited to eat a healthy fruit or vegetable (snacking while working is encouraged here) is a major reward for Clarke. One participant tried spinach and liked it so much he called it “vegetable candy.” Now there’s a marketing concept.

Project Grows is part of the Fields of Gold program designed to encourage agritourism throughout the state. More on that later.

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