Feature: How the Historic Westside Gardens is Growing a Healthier Community

If you’ve ever wanted to grow your own vegetables, chances are there’s a Garden Angel just around the corner ready to help! The Historic Westside Gardens (HWG) is equipping Westside residents with the tools and resources to grow their own food, and the Garden Angels — fellow Westside residents who serve as leaders, teachers, coaches, community activists, surveyors and advocates — offer just one of a handful of current programs that assist residents in the community with gaining more access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.

Founded in 2008, HWG has grown from its initial training gardens to include providing garden plots for individuals and families, operating the Westside Growers’ Market that allows the public to buy fresh local produce, and supporting the Urban Fresh Community Garden that supplies the Westside Growers’ Market and hosts additional space for small plots.

The Westside Growers’ Market was started in 2016 as a test initiative of HWG and the Atlanta Food Bank/Food Oasis, operating at the corner of Lindsay Street and North Avenue. Since then, it has grown and relocated to its current location at the corner of Boone and Lowery Boulevards in the heart of the community, operating on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Food Oasis remains committed to the Westside Growers’ Market by providing access to the Wholesome Wave, “double-your-EBT” capacity and a small amount to purchase fruits.

Visitors to the Market this spring can find some combination of kale, collard greens, arugula, Swiss chard, snap peas and spinach, as well as okra, tomatoes, squash and peppers that are likely to come in the summer.

According to Garden Angel Rosario Hernandez, a community resident and the lead organizer of the Market, “It’s a real asset to the community because it’s the only affordable fresh produce market in the neighborhood that’s operated by the residents.” She continues, “The reason why I started growing fruits and vegetables is because I could not find anywhere to buy them.”

In addition to assisting with access to affordable fresh food, the Market also provides nutritional information and classes where residents can learn more about making healthier choices.

Just up the road from the Market sits the Urban Fresh Community Garden at 1211 Joseph E. Boone Boulevard with an expanding footprint of farming space and resources. In the front of the property, a few dozen box gardens are being tended to and managed by individuals and families. Around back there is dedicated land for growing vegetables that ultimately end up in the Growers’ Market. Garden Angels help maintain the property, assisting families with their individual boxes as well as tending to the larger communal garden.

Garden Angel Arthur Hines grew up in the Westside neighborhoods adjacent to the Urban Fresh Farm before embarking on a music career, and he split much of his young adult life between Atlanta and farming with his friends in California. After some time, he noticed a huge disparity in the amount of fresh food available to his friends and family on the Westside and the effects of poor dietary habits, particularly among the senior residents of the community.

“I watched about five seniors die from diabetes, heart attack, stroke, etc.,” says Hines. “So, I started to grow and help them grow…[M]ost of the seniors in the beginning of our Urban Fresh Garden Club, they would walk over and water the plants and pick a few vegetables, and from there we just started to build on that.”

Historic Westside Gardens eventually formed a partnership with Hines and Urban Fresh to further support its programming. Currently, it is free for Westside residents to participate in the gardening program, either at the farm or in their homes. As a Garden Angel, Hines will visit residents’ homes for a consultation and to talk about what crops they’d like to grow. From there, he can have a raised garden bed box in place within a week.

The mission and success of the program have begun attracting more support from the community with an eye to help Historic Westside Gardens expand its impact.

“I believe that gardens in people’s houses are the best solution for urban gardening,” says new HWG board member Laurene Hill. “It brings it back home, and it gives everyone a feel for nature, the environment and the planet.”

According to Historic Westside Gardens lead organizer Gil Frank, hopefully all of their efforts are leading to an increase in the number of gardeners and Garden Angels so that fresh local food can be part of the identity of the community and its current residents. That starts with a collaborative effort to fight displacement in the communities.

“When we displace people, we displace food, and it is already happening with some of our gardeners,” says Frank. “We have to address the issue of land urban agriculture to stabilize the displacement. We also have to reconnect people with food.”

Short term goals for the Historic Westside Gardens also include the formation of an advisory committee of residents and stakeholders, the possible addition of a cafe and an increased access to tools and gardening projects. By the end of the year, they will have empowered 200 gardeners; by 2021 the goal is to have 500.

According to Frank, “Five years from now we will have leadership made of people who are successfully demonstrating the capacity to take care of their lives.”

For more information on the Historic Westside Gardens: