Sharrona Moore learned at a young age that growing food doesn’t have to be difficult. As a child, she spent weeks in the summer on a great-uncle’s farm and discovered the joy of gardening and eating vegetables straight from the fields.
For the past few years, Moore, 44, has grown her own herbs or vegetables on her patio or in her garden in Lawrence, Greater Indianapolis. Most recently, she turned her gardening work into a project to help her neighborhood in Indianapolis’ Far East.
Moore, a hairdresser and comedian, discovered that she had another dream. She wanted to create a community garden to meet the fresh food needs of the people in her neighborhood. By training in Purdue University’s Urban Agriculture Certificate program, she learned how to multiply her growing capacity and move from horticulturalist to food producer.
With the help of community volunteers and the local Monarch Beverage company, Moore has now set up an operation roughly the size of two soccer fields that supplies healthy fruit and vegetables to its neighbors in need.
When a tight budget is not enough …
Moore’s Indianapolis district in the far east is a food wasteland. There are no traditional grocery stores within miles of some homes, but fast food, gas stations, and liquor stores abound.
Moore says she sees kids buying fries and sweet drinks at the gas station before and after school.
“They get that and then they go home. So you don’t get a high quality meal every day, ”says Moore.
Over a third of the people in the neighborhood live in poverty. This, along with the lack of healthy food, has serious public health implications. Americans living in poverty are more likely to experience chronic health problems, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.
Moore understands what it means to not have enough money to eat. Her younger brother Otto Breedlove, who has Crohn’s disease and schizophrenia, receives $ 180 a month in benefits from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program – also known as SNAP or food stamps. Breedlove, 42, lives alone, but Moore makes sure he gets to the grocery store and helps him stretch his money every month. Sometimes he still doesn’t have enough.
Her brother’s situation was a motivation for Moore to start her gardening project. She says she was frustrated with a sometimes humiliating experience in the pantries where recipients had to prove their income each month in order to receive food.
In December 2016, Moore scheduled a meeting with Phil Terry, CEO of Monarch Beverage Company, an Indianapolis-based beer and wine merchant. Moore knew from driving past the company’s premises that Monarch had enough free acres to create a community garden.
Terry remembers the meeting with a smile.
“Sharrona comes in and she’s very prepared,” recalls Terry. “She has data on the need for healthy food in this community – and how, working with us and others in the community, she could turn part of this land that we don’t use into something useful.”
Terry calls the meeting “Zen-like”. He says Moore’s desire fits perfectly with the wellness culture Monarch is working on (the company has an on-campus medical clinic and a gym with personal trainers).
Terry says the company considered breaking new ground in a Monarch Beverage community garden, but it didn’t materialize. When Moore came up with a plan, it was easy to say yes.
With this partnership, Lawrence Community Gardens was established.
Space to grow
Initially, Monarch set aside two acres along 46th Street east of Post Road for the garden and several more acres are available to expand. That spring, Moore and her team removed the sward and worked organic compost in the dirt to prepare for planting.
Moore and Monarch are also working with the City of Lawrence to set up an aqueduct to the garden area and to help with other issues. Indianapolis-based healthcare provider Community Health Network, which sponsors a mobile food truck, has expressed an interest in partnering with Lawrence Community Gardens and other citizen-led food initiatives.
Volunteers have helped every step of the way, including Monarch staff, local residents, and children and youth from the Fay Biccard Glick Neighborhood Center in Crooked Creek with the mowing, tilling, planting, and weeding.
Some of the first products from the garden made it to the Lawrence Community Cupboard, a food bank that serves 1,200 Lawrence Township families every month. Coordinator Molly Mattacks says people love the fresh produce, tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers.
“I know there was tomatoes because everyone wanted tomatoes and she was the first to bring them,” says Mattocks.
This year’s wet weather was challenging, but Moore grows two acres of fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, okra, and watermelons. She is about to plant late-season crops – cabbage, beets, cabbage, kale, garlic, and mustard. When it’s done, a portion of it will be sold at the new Lawrence Community Garden mobile grocery stall that debuted earlier this month.
Moore says half of the proceeds will be given away.
“The rest of what we grow here is sold here on a farm stand, so that we have affordable access to marketable food for farmers for our community,” says Moore.
The garden accepts SNAP benefits – and there is also a free “You-Pick” area. Moore does not ask people to check where they live and how much money they make, requirements in some pantries.
“I want to give people a more dignified dining experience. No paperwork, ”says Moore. “We just want your name and weigh the food so we know how much we’re giving to the community.”
So far this year, Lawrence Community Gardens has donated £ 1,200 of products to Indianapolis pantries.
Moore’s goal in this inaugural year? Grow 20,000 pounds of food.
This story was produced through a partnership with WFYI Indianapolis and Side Effects Public Media, a news coverage collaboration focused on public health.