Before I began working in Pickens County, I had little experience with agriculture-based communities. I was even less familiar with the seemingly paradoxical association of those communities with food deserts. According to the USDA, a food desert is an area lacking healthy food options or where unhealthy food options are more accessible than healthy options. While working in Pickens County, I began to understand more about the wide variety of factors that impact health, especially when it comes to access to healthy food and health care.
I saw firsthand the importance of the biopsychosocial model of health, which uses interactions between biological, psychological, and social factors to determine health status, in rural communities. My personal experiences, coupled with the success I saw with the Druid City Garden Project in Tuscaloosa, AL, led me to choose gardening as the focus for my work in Pickens County. I began by working with the 4H organization in Gordo, AL, an after-school educational and extracurricular activity for kids aged 9-14 that was already in place. I installed raised-bed gardens and taught about gardening, nutrition, and sustainability twice a week. Sometimes I felt as though I was learning just as much, if not more, as the kids I taught. While the kids in the organization learned about healthy foods and being outdoors, I learned how to impact kids on a level that they understand and can be excited about. The most important lesson I have learned so far—one that applies to gardening and medicine–is the value of patience.
I have also learned more about social responsibility, something crucial in a small community. My class decided to donate our harvest to the food pantry across the street to give back to the underserved community. The initiative and enthusiasm I have seen in the kids I work with has inspired me to expand this program to other parts of Pickens County. Other current and upcoming efforts include a community garden, a teaching garden at one of the local schools, and a therapy garden for a local senior center. I can’t wait to see what comes from this project!