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This Mercer University medical student is bringing fresh veggies to Macon’s food deserts

Mercer student grows fresh produce for needy residents in Macon

Food insecurity affects nearly a quarter of Bibb County residents. A Mercer University medical student hopes to promote proper nutrition by donating vegetables from a community garden to Macon's neediest residents.
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Food insecurity affects nearly a quarter of Bibb County residents. A Mercer University medical student hopes to promote proper nutrition by donating vegetables from a community garden to Macon's neediest residents.

On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, Ayana Graham squatted beside a garden plot sprouting bunches of dark green kale and inspected their leaves. She methodically tore off yellowed pieces of lettuce that had dried out during a weekend frost and tossed them in a pile on the grass.

Graham isn’t a master gardener. She’s a third-year student at the Mercer University School of Medicine who had never grown a plant on her own until about a year ago.

Now, Graham maintains a garden near campus and cultivates cucumbers and tomatoes under grow lights in her home.

When Graham noticed a need in the community for fresh produce, she decided to do her small part to fill the gap. With support from the medical school’s Distinction in Service to the Community program, she started growing vegetables to donate to those in need.

“I knew very little, which I thought made me the perfect person to try to start something like this,” she said. “If I can do it, anybody can.”

Graham hopes to share her newfound gardening skills with others in the community, too. She knows many might not otherwise have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Produce is hard to find within Macon’s city limits. A series of grocery store closures in recent years has left large swaths of the city devoid of a single supermarket.

Many residents must travel a mile or more to reach the nearest source of fresh food, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture. For those without a vehicle, packaged and frozen goods from a convenience store are the most accessible form of sustenance.

Since the Kroger closed on Pio Nono Avenue last April, the heart of Macon has become a food desert, where the closest full-service supermarket is more than a mile away.

Midtown Macon became a food desert when the Kroger on Pio Nono Avenue closed in April 2018. Telegraph reporter Samantha Max set out on foot to find groceries near the now-vacant supermarket.

Nearly a quarter of Bibb County residents don’t have consistent access to nutritious food, according to hunger advocacy group Feeding America. More than a third of residents are obese.

Multiple studies suggest community gardens can improve health and increase fruit and vegetable consumption in food deserts. Graham decided to test the theory in Macon.

As a medical student, she’s seen firsthand the impact of poor nutrition. Her patients at the local hospitals and clinics often suffer from diet-related ailments.

It’s not enough to treat patients when they’re already sick, she said. Graham hopes to prevent illness before it takes over her patients’ lives.

The first priority of a health care provider is to stabilize acutely ill patients, Graham said. But she worries that, without proper education, their conditions will only worsen with time.

“Seeing my patients, seeing their diets, seeing their lifestyles, seeing their struggles, it just, it became real to me that it’s not always realistic to tell people to go home and, you know, get the vegetables that you’re supposed to, because it’s not always that easy,” Graham said.

If her patients couldn’t buy fresh vegetables at a nearby grocery store, Graham thought, she’d just have to find another way to supply them.

She rented a plot in a community garden behind Centenary United Methodist Church, did some research online and planted her first seedlings. The initial batch was a bit of a flop, Graham said, but later attempts have been more successful.

When Graham has enough produce to harvest, she bags up the vegetables, attaches nutrition information to the packages and delivers them to the Rescue Mission of Middle Georgia. The shelter serves between 250 and 300 meals daily, and such food donations make it possible to serve the high volume of visitors each day, said president and CEO Pat Chastain.

Chastain said he hasn’t always put much thought into the nutritional value of the food he serves. For years, local restaurants have donated fried chicken, pizza and canned goods for the Rescue Mission’s daily meals.

In recent weeks, Chastain said, the organization has shifted gears.

“We’re really mindful now of trying to serve portions, and we’re trying to serve, you know, healthier stuff,” he said. “Even when we cook in house, we’re trying to bake more than fry.”

Chastain is also working with nutritional consultants to revamp the shelter’s meals and provide more opportunities to educate clients about healthy eating.

It’s not easy to convince people to alter their habits, Chastain said. But he hopes projects like Graham’s can be a stepping stone for his clients on the path to recovery from homelessness, abuse and drug addiction.

“It’s not just about handing out a plate of food as much as it’s, ‘Hey, what would it look like for you, instead of just coming here for a plate of food, come in, receive the recovery and the help that you need, and then, during that process, why don’t we talk about what’s healthy for you and your body?” Chastain said.

Education is an important piece in the puzzle, said Eric Mayle, who oversees the community garden where Graham grows her produce. Centenary Community Ministries, Inc. created the garden about a decade ago to provide a space for those who wouldn’t be able to grow their own plants and produce otherwise.

The nonprofit organization rents half of its 20 plots to community members for $10 per season and uses the other 10 plots to grow fruits and vegetables for residents of the Dempsey Apartments and other low-income housing complexes around town.

Community events in the garden bring amateur and experts together to share recipes and learn more about where their food comes from, Mayle said.

Graham hopes to host her own events in the garden when the weather gets nicer.

“I would love to have this on a giant scale and be able to bring people in and to teach them to do it themselves,” she said.

Graham knows her donations help those in need, but she thinks her project would have a more lasting impact if she taught them how to garden on their own.

“That whole saying, you know, ‘If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day,” Graham said. “Teach a man to fish, he’ll, you know, eat for a lifetime.’”

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.

Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. She joined The Telegraph in June of 2018 and reports on the health of the community. Samantha graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2018. As an undergraduate student, she interned for the Medill Justice Project, Hoy (Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language publication) and NPR-affiliate station WYPR in her hometown of Baltimore. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.


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