A new health program focused on Black Austinites connects seniors and kids through gardening


Austin (KXAN) — In gardens around Austin, something special is happening.  African American senior citizens are being paired up with kids and meeting each week to garden together.  The people involved with the program say it’s been tremendously successful and has forged new friendships and skillsets.

Though this program looks nothing like a doctor’s office or a prescription, it is entirely health-focused. It is also supported by UT Austin’s medical school.

The program is part of Dell Medical School’s Community Driven Initiatives, which takes in suggestions proposed by and for residents of Austin and Central Texas to improve health in their communities. Part of the goal behind Community Driven Initiatives is addressing the impacts of unfair economic policies and discrimination which have lead to inequality in health. These projects are chosen from all the community suggestions using a number of criteria, including whether they help underserved populations and address gentrification.

“It’s one of our most successful programs, folks from when they read the idea, to talking about the idea to [participating] people really love this,” said Nitakuwa Barrett, the Program Manager for Community-Driven Initiatives.

Barrett explained that the program started in 2018 but had its big launch in the Spring of 2019. She noted that the new social connections, the increased access to healthy food, and the physical activity in this program offer huge potential health benefits.

“It’s estimated that over 80% of your health outcomes have nothing to do with going to your doctor’s office or a hospital,” Barrett said.

“Looking at food access,” Barrett said, giving an example of one of the ways this program addresses the social aspects of health. “So it’s not easy for all of us to get to a grocery store that has high-quality produce and also it has been a tradition in the African American community to have backyard gardens, so getting that going again is a great way to both foster those connections and then get access to healthy foods.”

“Also, within our community, there are high rates of hypertension and a prudent way to address that is through our diet, so fresh fruits, and vegetables,” she added.

Barrett said that she hopes this program keeps going for years, for as long as the community wants it to be there.

Marva Overton, the executive director of the Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas, came up with the idea for the program. Overton said the people involved now are looking into ways to keep it going in the long term. Her father is actually one of the senior citizens participating in the program.

“Kids are learning about the origins of food, the history of African Americans with food, why there sometimes are issues around who has access to what foods, learning about gardening and about why there’s such a rich history with African Americans and gardening,” she said. “My grandmother grew all their food, my dad grew up in the country, they grew food, so just helping the youth who haven’t had that history or had that connection, helping them to learn about that, I think is just so instrumental and so important.”

She added that for seniors who may struggle doing yard work, it can be a benefit to have someone younger to help maintain their gardens. The young participants in this program, for example, constructed the raised planter boxes in the gardens.

Overton said it was also important to her that financial literacy education played a part in this program, as economic stressors can have a significant impact on health and well-being.

How the program works

The Soul to Soul Intergenerational Gardening initiative was an idea submitted by the Alliance for African American Health in Central Texas.  There are three types of participants in this program: young people ages 12-17, adult lead gardeners and senior citizens. The program has 14 youth participants, 7 seniors, and 7 garden locations.

Together, they plant and maintain backyard gardens in Austin. The young people involved in this program take financial literacy and food justice classes and are also given a stipend to help them plan out gardening work. Everyone involved can take part in the classes and benefits from shared gardening skills and locally-grown food. 

“We’ve had gardening classes, financial literacy classes, and food justice classes, and they come together and they talk about those things like they’ve been knowing each other for years,” said Robbie Ringer, the community program coordinator for Soul to Soul. “And it’s amazing.”

This program has sparked her memories of her mother and her grandmother’s gardens.

“It reawakens some things that are in our roots, because gardening is a long term thing for African Americans, we’ve been doing it for generations, but we’ve kind of gotten away from it,” Ringer said.

Young people and adult leads of multiple ethnicities participate in this program.  The organizers realized that displacement of African American families in Austin impacted who they could recruit for their program.

The focus of this program is on bringing health benefits to Austin’s African American community, but anyone is welcome to participate.

11-year-old Elise Franklin-Downs participates in the program and has been learning more about gardening.

“Whoever is trying to grow some plants, make sure you take care of it, really take care of it,” she advised.

Franklin-Downs believes that spending more time with people who aren’t her same age has helped to expand her horizons.

“I don’t know everything, so I need to at least learn something new every day,” she explained.

For this program, Franklin-Downs has been partnered with senior citizen Valerie Fruge, who lives in East Austin. Fruge lives in the home her mother and father bought and estimates that it’s been in her family for 65-years.

Franklin-Downs and her father (who is an adult leader with the program) say they’ve learned a lot from Fruge, both from working in her garden and from hearing her stories about the history of her neighborhood.

Fruge said she’s benefited from the help keeping her garden going.

“To have this support and this help is unbelievable,” she said. “I know I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Most of the gardens in this program are in East Austin. East Austin is an area full of rich history for Austin’s African American community, who were forced there by segregationist policies in the 1920s. Today, gentrification is pushing many of those families out and East Austin has become a “hot real estate market” seeing the largest increases in property value in all of Travis County.

Researchers at UT Austin have been documenting and calculating displacement in East Austin and its impacts on the African American community. The researchers believe these neighborhoods are most vulnerable because they had historically lower housing costs as a result of 1928 policies which segregated Black Austinites to the eastern part of the city. Those low housing costs have recently been reversed as east Austin becomes more socially and financially desirable for others with more money, the researchers noted. They added that communities of color are among the most at risk of being displaced.

Community-driven initiatives

Dell Med’s Community Driven Initiatives are projects that can be carried out and assessed in a year or less. These initiatives champion an idea called “planning to stay”— supporting underserved groups to stay in the community and working against gentrification. 

Since these initiatives started, there have been 208 ideas submitted. Applications are currently open for the next “Call for Ideas.” If you have an idea to improve the health of a community in Central Texas, you can submit your idea here.

“All Things Blessed” is the name of Valerie Fruge’s garden in East Austin, one of the sites for the Inter generational Gardening program. This program is supported by Dell Medical School’s Community Driven Initiatives. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard).

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