Community gardens: Where seniors cultivate food and friendships

Julia (pictured above) is active in the Council on Aging's Garden Club and helped seed the gardens. Photo courtesy of ACCA
Julia (pictured above) is active in the Council on Aging’s Garden Club. Photo courtesy of ACCA

Community gardens in Athens-Clarke County are not only yielding food, but are also helping older people maintain good mental and physical health.

Two beautiful gardens have been cultivated at the Athens Community Council on Aging’s Hoyt Street location, serving seniors in 12 northeast Georgia counties.

One garden, planted on what used to be an abandoned parking lot near the building, now houses 18 raised container beds, bursting with vibrant flowers and leafy vegetables. The second garden, near the back of the building, also holds raised beds with thriving vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, cabbage, kale and chard.

“I planted some peppers, the sweet kind, not the hot,” said Helen, a Council on Aging client who is active in the organization’s Garden Club. (The Council on Aging withholds clients’ last names to maintain their privacy.)

The council’s garden club meets twice a month, and those who help with garden maintenance projects can take home the vegetables they grow.

“We pick some kale and some mixed turnip greens,” said Helen, who grew up raising vegetables. She now lives in an apartment, making it difficult to grow her own backyard plot. “I took some home with me, and they were really good.”

An enthusiastic garden club is not the only benefit of the on-site community gardens. In 2012, the gardens yielded more than 400 pounds of food, which went toward programs such as Meals on Wheels, the Center for Active Living, and Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

In addition to the Council on Aging’s own harvest, UGArden, a program run by University of Georgia students, also contributes fresh produce to the council’s programs.

Adequate nourishment is crucial for older people, whose bodies don’t store energy as efficiently as those of younger folks. But nutrition can be hard to maintain when budgets are tight, transportation to grocery stores is not guaranteed, or cooking becomes difficult.

“Food insecurity among older adults is definitely a problem here in Athens,” said KaDee Holt, the Athens Council on Aging’s director of marketing and communications. “Food insecurity doesn’t mean people don’t have food. It means they might not have access to good food.”

Many older Georgians are at high risk of food insecurity, according to the USDA, whose data show that the state has the fifth-highest rate in the nation. This appears to be a regional problem: Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of food insecurity among people 60 and older are in the South, according to a 2011 study funded by the AARP Foundation.

Southern states, though they still get much of their revenue from farming, now have large urban and suburban areas where people no longer live close to the soil.

“Many changes happen as people get older,” said Jung Sun Lee, an associate professor of gerontology within the University of Georgia’s Department of Foods and Nutrition. “They have different levels of social support, and they might have more physical function problems.”

Chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes are more common in older people, and managing such conditions takes constant attention to diet and exercise. Not obtaining enough food or not having the right foods to eat can worsen physical and mental health. Given the large and rapidly growing population of older Americans, this has implications for everyone.

“It’s not only an individual and family problem,’’ Lee said. “It could be translated into a social problem because health care is supported by all people living in a society.”

A chance for social interaction

Originally created and managed with the help of Athens Land Trust, the Athens Council on Aging gardens are now considered a satellite location of UGArden, whose staffers visit them twice a week to help maintain them and operate the Mobile Farmer’s Market on Mondays.

On average, more than 20 clients stop by the Council on Aging’s Mobile Market on Mondays, said Jessica Wolf, a UGArden intern and manager of the Mobile Market. Wolf uses these opportunities to talk to clients about their tastes as she plans the upcoming fall garden. Turnip greens and collards are the most popular requests year-round.

Seniors gain more than fresh produce and exercise from planting, weeding and harvesting during northeast Georgia’s long growing season.

The social benefits of community gardening are similar to those of dog ownership. Seniors working a community garden, like dog owners out walking their pets, run into people in the neighborhood with shared interests day after day, said Fred Conrad, the Atlanta Community Food Bank community garden coordinator for 15 years.

“The garden tends to be a place where people can connect with each other in a more meaningful way,” Conrad said.

As people grow older, especially in urban areas, opportunities for socializing with peers become sparser, and isolation is common. But in community gardens, people work side by side, and social interaction can have a positive impact on mental function, mood and overall well-being.

“I don’t go out there when it’s too hot or cold, but I like to go out there and just walk around,” said Julia, a senior who is active in the ACCA Garden Club and helped seed the gardens.

Others simply enjoy gardening.

“I went out there and got some tomatoes and eggplant,” said Ella Mae, an 83-year-old longtime Athens resident. “I like gardening; nothing better than gardening.”

Lacey Avery is an Atlanta-based independent journalist covering science, environmental and health topics. Follow her on Twitter @lacey_avery or see more at