Oregon State University student Michael Bosch was not at a good point in his life early last year. He had health problems that led to weight gain, chronic hip pain and the steady use of prescription medications.
He answered a flyer recruiting people to work a garden because it offered pay and free produce.
Bosch never guessed that helping build a 10,000-square-foot garden would lead to an improvement in his health and emotional well-being.
“I was pretty depressed when I started the project. I just had a lot of setbacks in my life,” he said. “Having that connection to nature, growing something — taking care of it and then it takes care of me — that did a lot for me emotionally and mentally.”
In the coming months, Oregon State University researchers hope to analyze and quantify the benefits of community-based gardening after working with low-income volunteers, ages 16 to 25, since early last year.
Volunteers transformed a grassy field at Westside Community Church into a garden of fruits, vegetables and flowers while learning sustainable gardening methods. They also took monthly nutrition and cooking classes to integrate the fresh produce into their diet.
“They’ve learned not only how to amend the soil and plant and tend and harvest, but also how to cook and eat the food that they’ve grown,” Project Manager Liv Gifford said.
Funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the WORMS Youth Garden (an acronym for Working Organically to Research and Master Sustainability) and its sister garden in Sweet Home are part of an experiment aimed at learning if and in what ways young people benefit from such a project.
About 10 youth, along with researchers and a few other volunteers, grew thousands of pounds of food this year. The apples, berries, beans, broccoli, tomatoes, squash and other produce they couldn’t eat, they sold or gave away.
On Sunday, volunteers pressed freshly-picked apples into cider, sold produce and gave garden tours as part of their second annual harvest party. They will sell their produce in the Westside church parking lot during the next few Sundays to wrap up the season.
The two-year data gathering portion of the project is coming to a close, but participants find that they are not ready to quit the garden.
“I started to get into it because I was pretty broke,” Bosch said. “Now I’m going to do the gardening and there’s no research incentive … It would be hard to walk away. I feel like I have a connection to this land now.”
OSU student Gabrielle Jones, 22, agreed.
“I’m going to continue with the garden because, honestly, it saved me a lot of money being able to eat vegetables out of here,” she said. “When you grow vegetables for yourself, it’s hard to go to the store (for produce). The quality of and the quantity you get is kind of pitiful compared to (the garden) — you just come here, you work, and you get as much as you want.”
In the following months, researchers will sift through the data they’ve collected to see if the program has, broadly speaking, improved the participants’ lives — their diets, emotional well-being, how they feel about their place in the world and insight into their dreams and goals. The researchers are planning a conference in the spring to share their thoughts and lessons on the project.
“I think it’s been a transformative experience for all of us, staff included,” Gifford said. “We’ve just all seen the importance of working together to grow food, and eating well and celebrating food and celebrating the harvest and being connected to the seasons.”