Never Too Old To Grow

Senior citizens prefer card games indoors; gardening is best suited to the young and physically fit; and older people can’t tolerate the Texas sun. These are some of the unfair assumptions that the City of Austin’s Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens Program (SUACG) coordinator, Jake Stewart, tossed aside while helping to launch the Community Garden of Eatin’ pilot program last spring.

“I think that one of the lessons learned is: Don’t underestimate the senior population,” he says. “We were pleasantly surprised by how much interest there was and how quickly it caught on.” 

Indeed, since the kickoff event, Stewart says that many older adults from the South Austin Senior Activity Center have taken ownership of the program by forming a steering committee, designing their own logo and T-shirts, hosting regular meetings, adding their own gardening beds and even working through the hottest days of the year. “I was most impressed with their toughness and their willingness to dive in,” says Stewart.

The SUACG program, under the umbrella of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department’s initiative Austin Grows, was funded with approximately $10,000 from Health’s Angels, a St. David’s Foundation program, which assists organizations that promote healthy aging and healthy living through physical activity and good nutrition. “It’s really a perfect fit for us,” says Earl Maxwell, CEO of the foundation. “By having older people growing food and working in a garden, not only are they getting that kind of activity, but they’re eating the vegetables. But the main thing is getting people outside and working with something that’s growing.”

Highlights of the program include accessible, raised beds (which require no bending to reach), composting bins and an inside “share basket” through which all members of the center have access to the surplus from the harvested bounty. “It has been neat to see how the sharing extends to people who may not be able to participate personally,” says Stewart. 

Maxwell says the foundation is impressed with the success of the project, and he hopes to partner with the City to fund additional garden sites for next spring, as well as to provide volunteers. And Stewart’s office is considering several senior centers and recreation centers located in “food deserts” on Austin’s east side—with an eye toward including youth- and other community-based initiatives. 

“The rec centers and senior centers make perfect platforms because many of them also have cooking facilities inside,” Stewart says. “So the next extension of this program is to also engage [participants] in learning culinary skills and fresh vegetable preparation.” He hopes to use the plethora of wisdom held by program participants—including knowledge of heirloom skills like canning and food preservation—to train future garden leaders. 

“I think we younger people mistakenly make assumptions about the capacity of this population,” Stewart says. “Some of these folks can go circles around the younger gardeners.”—Nicole Lessin

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