Get Cooking in Community Gardens

Now that spring has sprung, you may be spending more time outside in your garden—but, as an RD, you may want to consider branching out to someone else’s garden—that is, a community garden. Community gardens are a great way to connect neighborhoods with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor, and they’re a perfect venue for dietitians to share their nutrition knowledge.

Why Community Gardens?
Community gardens are collaborative projects located in shared open spaces where participants share in the maintenance and products of the garden, including healthful and affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. They may be located in church parking lots, near parks, between houses, or in abandoned lots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, community gardens often are situated in shared open spaces and offer collaborative efforts among community members. They’re usually located in food deserts, which is a potentially huge benefit to underserved communities. The benefits of community gardens include the following:

  • beautifying vacant lots;
  • skills building;
  • reduced violence in some neighborhoods;
  • improved social and mental well-being;
  • teaching children where food comes from; and
  • increased access to healthful foods.

Cooking Demos
Dietitians who enjoy the outdoors, meeting new people, and teaching simple cooking skills may find numerous opportunities in community gardens. A cooking demo in a garden involves bringing your skills, cooking utensils, and creativity into the green space. Recipes should be simple to prepare and revolve around what’s harvested in the garden at that time. For example, leafy greens and onions are most abundant in the spring, while tomatoes and peppers typically are available in late summer.

To simplify preparing for demos, assemble a simple garden tool kit that contains everything you’d need for a cooking demo, such as a chef’s knife, cutting board, measuring cups and spoons, salad spinner, mixing bowl, whisk, and serving utensils. A portable propane stove and 8- to 10-in skillet also is useful for sautéing or reheating foods for participants to taste. Salads and stir-fries work especially well in this environment.

Community Collaboration
To get involved in a community garden, start by attending community council meetings or visiting your local garden center. Many communities have nonprofit garden centers that use available grant money to develop a garden education curriculum. Visit gardens or small farms in your community and inquire about nutrition education, explaining the benefits of having an RD involved in the garden. RDs can communicate with the gardeners about what produce will be available when and how to plan for the number of participants in the garden.

Benefits to RDs
Working in a community garden challenges dietitians to flex their creative muscles and do nontraditional work, and, for RDs in private practice, it raises community awareness of what a dietitian does and underlines the benefits of working with one. If you’d love to get involved in your community and educate the public about the benefits of sustainable, healthful, home-cooked foods, a community garden is the perfect place to “plant” yourself.

— Lisa C. Andrews, MEd, RD, LD (@nutrigirl) is a consultant dietitian and owner of Sound Bites Nutrition LLC. She’s the creator of Lettuce Beet Hunger, a line of food pun swag benefiting those suffering from food insecurity in Cincinnati.

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