New raised beds at the Melton Center. West Chester offers relatively few community garden plots considering the number of renters and homes with limited acreage.

As one side of the Melton Center property on E. Miner Street is being cemented over on its way to becoming ten townhouses and a four-story, 41-unit affordable apartment complex. The other side is being subdivided into 10 4’ x 4’ raised-bed plots. Over the last year, the community fixture since 1934 has been busy maximizing its physical presence to continue its mission of contributing to “the quality of life for all people of the greater West Chester community.” Which today means trying to tackle a couple of rather lofty goals: affordable housing and food insecurity.

While every row home that sells over asking price serves as a reminder of the borough’s need for affordable housing, one might not think putting food on the table would be a problem in the wealthiest county in Pennsylvania, but you’d be wrong. According to the latest Southeastern Pennsylvania Community Health Needs Assessment, just over 8 percent of the West Chester population (calculated in the study as the populations of the 19380 and 19382 zip codes) lives in poverty, 2.3 percent receive food assistance and 4 percent, or more than 4,300 residents, are food insecure. 

In the borough the highest percentage of those residents are in the southeast quadrant.  

“The harvest will be enjoyed throughout the seasons by the students and their families, residents of the East End, and by the families who have requested plots.”  

-Jaime Atkins, Melton Center Program Director

Expanding Community Access

The Melton Center’s new community garden is ready to welcome a new crop of gardeners.

“The Melton Center began our Community Garden program to help bring fresh food and healthy produce to the east end of the borough, which is considered a ‘food desert,’” said Melton Center Program Director Jamie Atkins. The original garden which sat on the east end of the property was razed prior to the start of construction. Fortunately for residents, the Melton Center was able to relocate its community garden to the western end of the property. 

The Melton Center Community Garden is not the only option to secure a plot locally but access is rather limited for an area of this size especially considering the number of renters, or those with limited access to tillable land. 

“As part of our exploration of the needs of our town, in this case West Chester borough and surrounding area,” said Margaret Hudgings, West Chester Green Team co-founder, “the West Chester Green Team sought opinions from about 20 West Chester Green team members and interested community members about what would make West Chester an even better place to live. One of the wishes was for more community gardening space.”  

So the Green Team reached out and found some gardening spots for residents including a new addition on the north end of town. Now the borough has one option per quadrant.

Community Garden Tour

Our West End Garden is currently the largest and longest running community garden in the borough.

If you head to the other end of the borough from the Melton Center, across W. Gay Street from the St. Agnes parking lot sits a 23-plot community garden called, Our West End Garden. Originally home to an abandoned water tower, in 2009, the residents in the area came together with an idea to save the land from its destiny as a parking lot. They built some raised beds, tilled up the land, and the borough’s longest running and largest community garden was born. The plots have been pretty consistently full ever since. 

On the south end of town, West Chester University runs four campus gardens, three of which are dedicated to school activities. The South Campus Garden, however, is open to everyone – faculty, students and the community – but note, it’s a working garden. It’s bounty is earmarked for sustainable food production and helping combat food insecurity. Meaning it all gets packed up and sent to the WCU Resource Pantry and the West Chester Food Cupboard. 

Then, new this year, on the north end, Barclay Friends with the help of the West Chester Green Team is piloting a 8-bed community garden of its own. According to a statement on their website, “Barclay Friends will offer garden beds to be planted by neighbors living in the West Chester Borough who need extra space to grow food for their families.” 

Which brings us back to the east end of the borough and the Melton Center, whose garden is also expanding. 

Starting Them Young

Kids and garden volunteers met in May to begin planting the Melton Center’s five student beds.

“This year we have also added a Children’s Garden, with a goal of helping students learn about nature, the environment, and how to grow their own food from a young age,” said Jaime.

To develop the children’s program the Melton Center partnered with West Chester’s Green Team and West Chester University personnel and came up with a curriculum that would not only involve students in the growing process but expand their exposure to food traditions from around the world. 

“They will plant seeds and help with garden care, learn about green issues and advocacy, try new foods and create crafts on environmental themes, and learn about how other cultures honor and celebrate the Earth,” said Margaret. 

The eight-week course will feature a new lesson each week with topics like cooking with tomatoes and Mexican snacks, endangered species, stories and mask making, and peach sampling from Barnard’s Orchards while exploring the Japanese folktale “Momotaro” about a baby found inside a peach. 

There will, of course, be garden tending too. 

“We are growing a variety of vegetables and herbs such as tomatoes, carrots, sweet peas, bell peppers, hot peppers, basil, and cilantro in our garden plots this summer, and in the fall will grow cooler-weather crops such as lettuce, kale, and collard greens,” said Jamie.

Sharing the Wealth

“The harvest will be enjoyed throughout the seasons by the students and their families, residents of the East End, and by the families who have requested plots through the West Chester Green Team,” said Jamie. 

Any extras will go towards helping those 4000 residents struggling to access affordable nutritious food via donations to the West Chester Food Cupboard or Chester County Food Bank. 

In the end will these gardens realistically help alleviate food insecurity in the Borough? It is likely too early to say. Previous research seems to suggest simply providing access to fresh food and vegetables doesn’t necessarily make a population healthier – and one would think that it would take more than a handful gardens to make a difference across an area as dense as ours. However, promise as been shown especially when dealing with kids. 

Research just out from the University of Austin set out to measure the effects of classroom gardens on students. Researchers partnered with more than a dozen elementary schools in Texas to see if the gardens had any effect on eating habits. What they found was hopeful. At the end of the program student participants were reportedly eating a half a serving more of fruits and vegetables than they were at the end of beginning of the study. 

It may not be the goal, but it’s a start and as they say, you can’t reap what you don’t sow.

“We are starting small for this year, but we look forward to continuing to grow our garden and welcome more gardeners each year!” said Jaime.

Want to get your hands dirty? The garden (and the Melton Center) are always looking for volunteers contact Jamie to learn more. 

Plus, West Chester’s needs your help to tackle climate change.

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