As flowers started to bring the sweet scent of spring to the air, Opelika Grows prepared for its spring planting weekend at the O Grows Community Garden on April 8.
John Forbes, the executive director of O Grows, set out in 2012 with the vision of reducing food illiteracy and insecurity. He began working with local elementary schools to connect K-12 youth with Auburn University students and Lee County residents to work towards these community goals.
In 2015, O Grows opened a community garden and took over the farmers market in 2016. The organization continued to work with local schools to set up gardens and volunteers to manage the main garden behind the Southside Center for the Arts on Glenn Street in Opelika.
Every Saturday, students, parents and other community members come together to work in the gardens. Through its work, O Grows is able to donate 2,000 pounds of fresh produce annually.
All food grown is free to the community and any produce not donated directly to the community is donated to the Food Bank of East Alabama’s Community Market of East Alabama.
“Where we’re situated in Opelika is between two of the most food insecure neighborhoods in the area, and there are not a lot of grocery stores within walking distance.” said O Grows program director Jessi Riel.
Through the O Grows Farmers Market, they are able to provide fairly priced fresh produce with some of the farmers taking Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits using an Electronic Benefits Transfer, which is a system that allows a SNAP participant to pay for food using their SNAP benefits. Some farmers also accept the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program benefits, which gives senior citizens a monthly allowance to spend directly on produce.
The Farmer’s Market begins weekly starting Tuesday, May 16, from 3-6 p.m. at 1103 Glenn St. Opelika.
O Grow’s main goal remains connecting students to the community and Forbes can often be heard saying “Gardening is the vehicle,” but O Grows doesn’t stop there.
Since its inception, the organization has grown to be about more than just planting seeds for food and is now also planting the seeds for change in Lee County’s juvenile court system.
By working with the juvenile court system, O Grows provides community service hours to students in the system and helps them connect with their community.
“That gives them an opportunity to build relationships within the community to increase community contributions and civic mindedness,” Riel said.
O Grows also has four high school interns every year, and many students use the internship program to gain experience and take advantage of the opportunities that O Grows offers.
High school interns are able to receive assistance from O Grows with college and job applications and a few have even gone on to work part-time for O Grows.
Each Saturday, O Grows hosts various gardening events from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday, April 8 held the Spring Garden Kickoff. Attendees were greeted with music, snacks, the ability to rent the remaining plots and a welcoming of new and returning community gardeners.
Community members who want to volunteer with O Grows can contact Jessi Riel at (254) 744-0726, or the O Grows team at OGrows@auburn.adu.
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