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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

Cultivating Better Health: Local Initiatives and Community Gardens Plant Wholesome Seeds

May 31, 2012 08:43PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Collier County Government complex farm market

The Eat Fresh, Eat Local movement, which began in 1971 at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ restaurant, in Berkeley, California, has slowly grown from a band of locavores in search of fresh produce into a national trend. Even First Lady Michele Obama has enthusiastically embraced eating more homegrown fruits and veggies and participating in community gardens as components of her Let’s Move! initiative. Hoping to stem the nation’s rising rates of obesity and diabetes in adults and children, many state and county government departments are taking steps to encourage physical activity and facilitate better access to fresh, wholesome foods.

Southwest Florida communities are also concerned about the long-term health effects of obesity and how it drives up the costs of health care. Motivated by the results of a 2010 statewide study that indicated high rates of overweight or obese adults—nearly 58 percent in Collier County and 61 percent in Lee—the two county health departments have begun to support and promote various community health-oriented initiatives.

Local Initiatives Foster Wellness Organized by the Lee County Health Department, the Fit-Friendly Coalition of leaders and local businesses is a comprehensive, community-based action plan to promote better health. “The coalition’s projects and initiatives are intended to establish and sustain a community culture of healthier lifestyles and help Lee County residents achieve a health and wellness mindset, improve nutritional habits and increase physical activities,” says Amanda Richmond, an administrative staff assistant.

Helping to tip the scales in a positive direction is the Safe and Healthy Children’s Coalition of Collier County, led by NCH Healthcare System. The coalition’s 95210 Let’s Go! is a community-wide initiative that promotes healthy lifestyles for children and seeks to defeat childhood obesity with a daily recipe of nine hours of sleep; five servings of fruits and vegetables; two hours or less of screen time outside of school; at least one hour of daily physical activity; and zero sugary beverages.

Stacy Revay, healthy communities coordinator for the Collier County Health Department and chairwoman of the Collier County Smart Growth Coalition (SGC), notes that businesses, governments and individuals are only now coming to grips with obesity’s previously overlooked costs, such as higher insurance premiums. “The Mayo Clinic reports that among its employees and their adult dependents, annual medical costs are an additional $1,850 more per overweight person than for someone of healthy weight,” she advises.

The Role of the Built Environment Community planners are also beginning to recognize how the built environment either inhibits or fosters the ability to be physically active and access healthy food, a topic that was the focus of 300 presentations at the 2011 meeting of the American Public Health Association. “The SGC began to recognize as early as 2009 that residents couldn’t move more or eat healthier foods without changes in their community environment,” says Revay, who notes that safe sidewalks, trails and bicycle lanes are necessary to make it easier for people to leave their cars at home and walk or bike.

According to A Citizen’s Guide to LEED for Neighborhood Development, physical and economic access to sources of healthy food such as community gardens, farmers’ markets, full-service grocery stores or other sources of fruit and vegetables is associated with higher intakes of healthy foods and reduced risk of chronic disease. Revay says one of SGC’s objectives is to encourage future developers to consider such aspects when designing, building or redeveloping communities.

To help support more physical activity, the SGC created a Healthy Development Checklist (HDC) to use as an evaluation tool for future redevelopment and new development projects in Collier County, and conducted a sample study of 20 local built developments to determine an appropriate threshold for scoring. Three main areas of consideration were walkablity, street and block design and school access.

Accessibility and Affordability

The HDC also factored in access to Collier Area Transit (CAT) sites. “Accessibility isn’t always the only issue to consider; affordability can also be a key hurdle to a healthier diet,” advises Revay, who focused on both and organized a weekly farmers’ market at the Collier County Government Complex that now serves more than 2,000 county employees. To spark ideas for cooking with fresh produce, she emails healthy recipes to employees that highlight ingredients available at the Friday Market, which is also attended by individuals using the CAT transfer station, as well as many residents of nearby neighborhoods that walk and bike to the market.

The results of a recent survey completed by employees that have shopped at the market since its inception in April 2011 confirmed for Revay that SGC is on the right track with its health-focused checklist: 60 percent noted that they and their families now eat more fruits and vegetables because of easy access to the market.

Creating Community Gardens

Golden Gate Community Gardening Team
Golden Gate Community Gardening Team
Brooke Hollander, a consultant for Tropical Environmental Consultants, in Naples, has been leading the charge to create a Collier County Community Garden. It would be Collier’s first public community garden on county-owned land, a space where local residents could grow and harvest their own organically grown produce.

Hollander notes that Lee County established such a garden in 2010, at Lakes Park. A joint project between the Lee County Parks & Recreation Department and the Lakes Park Enrichment Foundation, the garden’s 72 plots have been full during two growing seasons, and it has a waiting list. Several Collier County schools have also planted community gardens.

Even area homeowner’s associations are participating in the growing trend. Within Palm Crest Villas, a master-planned condominium community of 47 units in North Naples, residents are invited to participate in a community garden designed by neighbors Beth and Brian Housewert. “When we downsized from a house in Golden Gate to a condominium, the president of the homeowner’s association and his wife, both avid gardeners, approached us about installing a community garden. They knew that at our house, when we wondered what was for dinner we only looked as far as our 1.3-acre organic garden plot,” says Beth, who has initiated several food co-ops in Collier County. Nearly all the residents approved of planting the garden, even though not everyone chose to participate.

Edible Earth Works shared neighborhood garden
Edible Earth Works shared neighborhood garden

Andrea Guerrero, of Edible Earthworks Landscapes, LLC, in Fort Myers, recently spearheaded a different sort of community garden that also brings people together and offers easy access to healthy food, while helping the environment. One of her current projects, a neighborhood “guild” garden between shared driveways, is located off McGregor Boulevard. Here, neighbors share in the garden’s maintenance and harvest.

“In gardening, a guild is a harmonious assembly of plants that creates a diverse mixture whose elements have a purpose,” explains Guerrero. “The plants are chosen to be beneficial to each other. When we design guilds within an edible landscape, we appeal to sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The plant combination usually contains native flowers for color and beneficial insect attractors; it also provides wildlife habitat and of course, is a major food source. Herbs are often chosen for culinary purposes and as pest deterrents and aids for household members’ ailments, such as allergies.”

Perhaps the easiest place to dig in and initiate changes that cultivate health may be a community garden. These shared “fruit and vegetable pharmacies” offer positive impacts that reach beyond well-being. According to a 2008 Real Estate Economics report, The Effect of Community Gardens on Neighboring Property Values, the sale prices of properties within 1,000 feet of a garden rise significantly, both immediately and over time—another incentive to take up a trowel and grow the trend.

For more information, visit Fit-Friendly at Tinyurl.com/LeeCountyInjuryPrevention; the Collier County Smart Growth Coalition at Tinyurl.com/72efs7d; SafeHealthyChildren.org; TropicalEnvironmentalConsultants.com; and EdibleEarthWorks.com.

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