Across Kansas City — and the country — orchards in unlikely places now have budding fruit trees.
On a hilly terrain next to a massive railroad yard in Kansas City, Kansas, 10 pear, six apple and two peach trees are thriving where piles of construction debris, toilets and tires used to sit.
The orchards are part of The Giving Grove’s successes. Since the Kansas City nonprofit started planting gardens and orchards in 2013, its footprint has expanded to more than 330 orchards in 10 cities.
Beyond providing fresh food to the communities they serve, Giving Grove’s gardens have also cultivated a network of community stewards.
Rob Reiman, CEO of Giving Grove Inc., said they have been critical to the program.
“It was important to have the orchard be a neighborhood asset,” he said.
An asset led by the community, not an organization or a city.
“These individuals are very compassionate,” Reiman added. “They often have lived in the neighborhood the longest and they have many memories of a vibrant community. In their heads, they know the potential. They want to do it for the neighborhood.”
The Roots of Giving Grove
The concept of the Giving Grove’s work is direct: Inspire and excite a neighborhood about growing food.
“At the root of all that success is the fact that the neighborhood takes ownership,” Reiman said. “Any time you do that people are invested in an idea and they remain committed to it.”
The idea came to Jim Jarsulic when he looked at the lot filled with debris next to a doctor’s office in the 600 block of South 55th Street. The doctor agreed to let Jarsulic — a retired firefighter and longtime resident of the Turner neighborhood in KCK — start a small garden at the top of the hill.
A year later Calvin Hoover, a retired technician for the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities, joined Jarsulic and everything started to take off.
Every year, the pair has added something to the area, which now encompasses 4 acres. There are 4-by-12-foot raised garden beds tended by individuals, two large hoop houses that extend the growing season, and a monarch butterfly way station. They even raise tilapia next to a hydroponic garden.
The Turner project also includes a farmers market and a free food stand at a nearby church. The doctor’s office is now being transformed into a community center.
“The kids really did take to it,” Jarsulic said. “It’s a neighborhood place. It is better to be in a garden than a place with used glass.”
Jarsulic and Hoover have impressed Angela Markley, Unified Government of Wyandotte County commissioner. She first met the pair when she was board chair for the Turner Recreation Commission.
“I thought the garden would be a great use of unused space, and a wonderful opportunity to build community,” Markley said. “It has been both. In addition to being a meeting place and passion project for the dedicated garden team members, the garden is a center for community activity, both formal and informal.”
Markley said many area young people don’t have any exposure to gardening prior to visiting a Giving Grove, which helps provide the trees, supplies and training.
“It is connecting them to the earth and helping them understand how the science they learn at school is alive around them,” Markley said. “And it is helping pave the way for a greater understanding of the need to protect and preserve our resources.”
Reiman said that is part of the idea behind having care for the orchards – which could produce for decades – be transferred through a chain of stewards over time.
“Then you are creating a food system that is multigenerational,” Reiman said.
It didn’t take long to see the other benefits the orchards produced. Reiman has spent time visiting residents in Giving Grove orchards.
“They share with me their love of the orchard and seven times out of 10 the conversation focused on the community, not the food,” he said.
“They would share stories about the trash not being dumped in the area anymore. They would share stories about individuals in the neighborhood who would not be able to speak the same language but they would come into the orchard and they would communicate.
“This is much, much bigger than food.”
‘All The Garden Is a Learning Environment’
Just about 10 miles east of where Jarsulic and Hoover work, youth are experiencing the orchards overseen by Toni Gatlin.
A resident of the Santa Fe neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri, Gatlin oversees five orchards at or near George Washington Carver School, St. Paul Presbyterian Church, Hope Leadership Academy, the former Martin Luther King Elementary School on Indiana Avenue and the newly opened Martin Luther King Elementary School on Woodland Avenue.
Gatlin is determined that the students understand the orchards and how fruit and nuts are produced. And, of course, have a chance to eat the goods.
Gatlin is frustrated by the amount of junk food, candy and cigarettes sold in the neighborhoods of her orchards.
“It’s not a food desert, it’s a food swamp,” she said.
Along with learning about healthier food choices, the orchards teach the children about nature.
“All the garden is a learning environment,” she said. “It’s important for any child to know.”
Gatlin’s favorite time in the orchards might be when children are trying the trees’ fruit for the first time.
“It’s the surprise and awe when they have tasted something they never had before,” she said. “Then they desire to have more…that’s what I am working for.
“I want them to know how good food tastes. I want them to know that broccoli doesn’t need a dip. If I could put an orchard everywhere, I would.”
Dina Newman, director of the Center for Neighborhoods in the Department of Architecture, Urban Planning + Design at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said there are so many benefits.
“Green spaces – orchards, gardens, urban farms – help to improve the environment, help to reduce stress, and studies show it can reduce crime,” she said. “The accessibility to affordable, healthy, fresh fruit and vegetables addresses food insecurity issues that so many communities are experiencing. For some, there is a disconnect between the land and the food system – many have forgotten or never knew how to grow their food.”
The opportunity for orchards, Reiman said, will always be there.
“There will always be the need for green spaces in our communities. There will always be the need to create these safe destinations for people to reconnect with nature. And there will always be the need to create access to healthy food for free to individuals who simply don’t get enough.”
This story originally appeared in The Kansas City Beacon and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
Deb Skodack is a freelance reporter for The Kansas City Beacon.