If the leaders of this $4.3 million project raise the money to bring it to fruition, Columbus would have a community resource center and agricultural learning campus in one of the most impoverished parts of town.
The plan is to construct the George Washington Carver Victory Garden & Farm on the 10 vacant acres behind the Marshall Success Center and Davis Elementary School and along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. To start, the nonprofit community development organization Turn Around Columbus is trying to raise $143,000 for the project’s first phase.
The groundbreaking is scheduled for 1 p.m. Jan. 18 — on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day — to coincide with the grand opening of the MLK Outdoor Learning Trail, which is another Turn Around Columbus project.
Turn Around Columbus is partnering with the Muscogee County School District on the victory garden and farm to provide students hands-on learning in math, science and entrepreneurship. The goal is to empower youth to become positive change agents, with the byproduct of affordable and healthy food for the community.
“After the kids understand where food comes from and how it manages to get on the store shelves, then we’ll bring the parents in and let the kids teach the parents what they know and what they’ve learned, which will bring the family unit back together,” Turn Around Columbus President Ronzell Buckner told the Ledger-Enquirer.
A wide variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries, flowers and herbs are being planned for the garden and farm, which won’t have livestock.
“We are growing for family nutrition, so there will be a diversity of crops focused on what people are likely to eat,” Irene Shaver, a Turn Around Columbus volunteer and grant writer, said.
Buckner founded Turn Around Columbus in 2005. The organization’s other projects have been a drug prevention program, Carver High School renovation and mentoring, youth tutoring and summer farm stand entrepreneurs, and community dinners and conversations.
Phase 1 of the victory garden and farm project is expected to be completed by the end of 2021 and include:
- Hoop house (portable greenhouse)
- Outdoor prep sink and wash area
- Storage shed
- Garden beds
- Indoor classroom
- Food production area
- Outdoor classroom
Turn Around Columbus plans to hire four high school students this year to be youth farm leaders and cultivate one-eighth of an acre to grow more than 3,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables under adult supervision.
On Saturdays, 15-20 students from the adjacent Davis Elementary School would participate in the children’s learning garden, where they would read stories, make art and learn science and math as they grow their own food and contribute to the community. As the program grows, it would open to students across the district.
Phase 2 of the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 and include:
- Learning center
- Community garden beds
- Fire pit
The expansion would allow the site to host larger events, such as dinners, performing arts and guest speakers.
Buckner and Shaver hope the project boosts a community that used to be known as The Bottoms, where the odor from a slaughterhouse overwhelmed the air around the former site of Spencer High School.
“Kids would come to school here, and they would smell that stench all day long,” Buckner said. “People would be sleeping in their homes, walking in their yard and living around this stench all day long.”
Now, the sights and sounds of scrap metal yards dominate the area’s environment.
“We shouldn’t expect for kids to get and understand the importance of education when they are not living the dream but living around the dream,” Buckner said. “We want to give them that dream, to see that things can be better.”
Shaver explained the motivation for her involvement.
“When you take the time to really design something for people that elevates human behavior, that gives people dignity and respect and the whole community invests in that,” she said, “it’s a far better project, and it gets us closer to where we want to be, which is everybody is valued in this community, and there’s not this uneven geographic development that’s happening, that’s very obvious in Columbus.”
The project is in a census tract with an estimated median household income of $14,425, compared to $57,400 for the metro area, according to 2019 federal data.
Why named after Carver?
The project is named after Carver for not only his prominence in science but also his connection to Columbus.
Carver (1864-1943) was the director of agricultural research at the institute now named Tuskegee University, about 45 miles away from Columbus. He often visited friends in Columbus while helping Tom Huston Peanut Company, now called Tom’s Foods, develop peanut products, according to Columbus State University’s archive.
In fact, Buckner said, this project will grow the city’s first sweet potato variety named after Carver and developed by Tuskegee.
Carver promoted “victory gardens” during World War II as a way of encouraging folks to grow their own food to prevent shortages and support the troops.
How to help
The fundraising plan lists how the following donation amounts would benefit the project:
- $25 would help an elementary school student attend the Saturday programs for one month.
- $100 would help a teen be a youth farm leader for one month.
- $500 would help a disadvantaged family receive free produce all year from the community garden.
- $1,000 would help develop the learning center, community kitchen, community garden, orchard, walking paths, children’s garden and food production area.
A crime prevention grant from the Columbus Consolidated Government of $20,000 will help fund programming, Shaver said.
Turn Around Columbus also welcomes volunteers to contribute their expertise as a mentor or a builder or even to donate tools and materials.
To contribute or learn more about this project, call 706-940-2101.
Turn Around Columbus lists the following organizations as operating partners for this project:
4-H & Department of Agriculture at Fort Valley State University, Tuskegee University, Columbus State University Geography Department, Turnaround America Inc., Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, Muscogee County School District, George Washington Carver High School, J.D. Davis Elementary, Marshall Success Center, First African Baptist Church, Rawson Strong, Teen Resource 5, Masters of the Arts Youth Organization, American Youth Film Festival, Columbus Water Works, Chester’s BBQ, Freeman & Associates, Columbus 2016, Columbus Housing Authority, MidTown Inc., Omega Lambda Iota Social Action and Scholarship Foundation.