SHERIDAN — When looking for food on a slim budget, people don’t usually turn to the fruit and vegetable section of a grocery store or seek organic produce. Sometimes, when food instability is affecting families, healthy food and cheap food seem mutually exclusive.

However, the Cent$able Nutrition program through University of Wyoming Extension at Sheridan College is looking to bridge the gap between money-savvy and health-savvy nutrition with educational programs and a new community garden.

The garden is the brainchild of Lori Dickinson, a community educator for the Cent$able Nutrition program.

The program works with people dealing with food insecurity and offers interactive class on cooking, healthy eating and saving money.

As part of the education arm of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nutrition program receives federal funding. SNAP supports better nutrition for low-income households.

While Dickinson mostly does direct education, the new community garden is branching off by incorporating community involvement.

“We tried to reach demographics that could utilize it,” Dickinson said.

The garden is divided into two sections, one half gardened by youth community members and the other half by veterans in the recreation therapy program at the Sheridan Veterans Affairs Health Care System. All of the produce is donated to the soup kitchen, food pantry, SNAP table at the Sheridan Farmers Market on Thursdays or veterans in the community.

Dickinson has a social work background so, for her, partnering with different groups in the community has been very important for the project. Volunteers come from many groups, including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Volunteers of America Northern Rockies Milestones Youth Home, 4-H, youth that require community service and veterans. The extension program is also in the agriculture building at Sheridan College, so being able to connect with ag experts for the garden has been fruitful. So far, volunteers have put in more than 90 hours of time in the garden.

“It’s really important to instill in youth the concept of altruism and giving back,” Dickinson said. “They can learn in the process and have fun and still give back to the community and people who can really use it.”

Reed Novak is involved in 4-H and has been working in the garden since the beginning. He enjoys “digging through the soil and smelling the fresh plant life,” volunteering and the satisfaction of watching plants grow to share with others.

“I would encourage people to get into gardening too because it’s fun and it’s also rewarding,” Novak said.

The volunteers have worked to grow a variety of produce, ranging from many different types of squash to corn to jalapeños to Brussels sprouts, just to name a few. So far, the garden has yielded almost 100 pounds of produce that has been donated.

Hesid Brandow is the temporary local food and agriculture organizer and operates the SNAP booth at the farmers market where some of the produce is donated. The booth allows people to swipe their SNAP card and purchase SNAP bucks to use at the farmers market. Brandow understands the importance of promoting healthy food to people with food insecurity and coming together with community partners.

“Whenever we can come together to provide good, wholesome food for our community, everyone wins,” Brandow said. “Food is becoming increasingly important…and for people who are just trying to survive month to month and get the healthiest, best food for their family with their benefits programs…SNAP at the farmers market really increase the chances that what people are getting are going the be healthy foods that are going to increase the nutritional value of their household, and so put in that context it’s pretty obvious why this is a good thing for our community and why we should all care.”

In addition, the involvement of the SVAHCS recreation therapy program with the garden has proved beneficial for community building and recreation. The therapy program finds things that veterans have an interest in, or might have an interest in, and allows those interests to help further the therapy they may need. Veterans — particularly those in the inpatient program who have had a brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder — are involved with the program to find things that help heal them in a different way than traditional therapy.

Kristina Miller, the public affairs officer at the VA, said community partnerships are important for veterans, including involvement with the garden.

“There was a veteran who hadn’t gardened since he was a kid…this was reconnecting with those positive memories. Allowing them to remember that there are things they can do that aren’t meditation or traditional therapy may be what they need to be accepted in the community,” Miller said. “Anyone who has touched a plant or pulled a weed can appreciate the value in planting something and seeing it grow and being a part of its development.”

Veterans have also participated with the direct education aspect of Cent$able nutrition through classes on eating healthy on a budget, food safety and receiving cookbooks.

Brian Mealor is the director of the Sheridan Research and Extension Center, which houses the agricultural experiment station, offices for UW distance education and the UW extension programs like Cent$able nutrition. He feels that the garden could serve as a model for community engagement with encouraging healthy eating among demographics with food instability.

“I think hands-on, truly engaged programs like what Lori [Dickinson] is doing is the best way to do that extension and for people to learn about the importance of good nutrition and healthy eating habits and then tie that in with the ability to grow your own food and know the origin of where that food came from. It’s really a win-win on both sides. It’s taking the traditional model of extension and doing it a little bit differently.”

For Dickinson, the process of putting together the garden and growing it together with community partners is just as important as the product.

“There is a great need in this community to help people who have food insecurity,” Dickinson said. “It’s important to not only help them in the moment but to help them learn healthy life skills that can help them in the long run.”


By Claire Schnatterbeck

The Sheridan Press