Las Animas Shares Garden's Healthy Bounty
By Rebecca Jones
Las Animas Community Garden
Photography by Dan Sidor
Retired schoolteacher Don White watched with admiration for a couple of years as the community garden near his home in Las Animas got bigger and bigger. He would stroll past it on his daily walks and eye it longingly.
Last year, he finally asked if he might help out. "I began with just a couple of rows of squash and pumpkins," says White, 78. "But pretty soon, I was all over the garden. Being retired, I have plenty of time to spend down there."
In addition to cultivation and harvesting, White also helps with distribution of the produce. Last year, the Las Animas Community Garden more than doubled its production, harvesting 4,459 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. That stocked the Las Animas Secondary School's salad bar; filled refrigerators at the senior housing project where White lives; and supplemented the groceries given to clients of Las Animas Helping Hands, a nonprofit providing emergency services.
All told, at least 1,250 people – about half the community's population – received free produce from the Las Animas Community Garden. And 209 volunteers put in time in the garden, making it one of the most successful community gardens in the state.
The garden also has been a boon to health.
"I know it's changed the way a lot of people are eating," says Mary Beauchamp, business manager for the Las Animas School District and overseer of the garden. "It's having a huge impact. The kids love the fresh tomatoes on the salad bar, and the elderly who can't just run to the store and grab what they want are getting fresh produce delivered to them regularly."
The local food bank launched the garden in 2009. Bent County HealthCare Center donated the land, a plot 100 feet by 176 feet. The next year, the agriculture teacher at the high school took it over as a student project. "It has just grown from there," says Beauchamp.
She credits the garden's success to its many partners such as the Fort Lyon Department of Corrections, which donated inmate labor to install a greenhouse last year. The city of Las Animas brought in loads of free dirt to the garden last spring. Bent County Commissioners provided more dirt for an area that will become an orchard. Students from the local elementary school made row signs for the garden. Bent County Department of Social Services allowed members of the Adult Learning Center to volunteer in the garden in exchange for food assistance.
The school district still coordinates all the gardening activities. Students are given time to help prepare soil and plant crops. The Colorado Health Foundation provided funds to support a full-time instructor in the greenhouse and garden.
LiveWell Bent County is another supporter. Last summer, the organization sponsored a Family Fun Challenge Day in which participants went to various businesses engaged in fun, physical activities and earned points.
"Our garden was one of those stops, and participants had to pull weeds for 15 minutes," Beauchamp says. "I was amazed at how many community members that came did not realize how greatly the garden benefited our community."
LiveWell also teamed with business students from the high school to create a marketing campaign and recruit volunteers for the garden.
White enjoys distributing the fruits – and vegetables – of volunteers' labor.
"I deliver vegetables right to the doors of the ones living in the retirement center who want it," he says. "And I've delivered some to apartment complexes nearby. It's a good opening to meet people. If you've got vegetables in your hand, they're not too suspicious of you."
Beauchamp says once word got out about the garden, more food came in. "We began receiving free produce from stands in neighboring towns," she says. "This includes fruit that we had not grown – or could not grow – ourselves, including cantaloupe, watermelon, peaches, plums and pears." That fruit, too, found its way to the needy in Las Animas.