A visionary idea that took root in the Kansas City area six years ago continues to flourish as it improves healthy eating for low-income families and nurtures a renewed sense of community across struggling urban neighborhoods.
The Giving Grove, a program of the Kansas City Community Gardens, is a one-of-a-kind initiative that helps at-risk communities develop, harvest and share the bounty of fruit orchards planted at schools, churches and on vacant land.
Since 2013, the Giving Grove has helped plant over 2,000 trees at 135 sites throughout the metropolitan area.
The annual harvest — which includes apples, pears, peaches, cherries, dates, figs and berries — is projected to exceed 250 tons in 2017.
Rob Reiman, Giving Grove’s executive director, said the Kansas City program differs fundamentally from other urban orchard initiatives nationwide, which typically depend on trained horticulturalists or volunteers to maintain a small number of centrally located groves.
The Giving Grove, in contrast, empowers citizens to take responsibility for planting, maintaining and harvesting the orchards. Most importantly, he said, the groves are established in the heart of the communities they serve.
“Our model is aimed at eliminating the complexity and cost of the supply chain by putting the fruit trees exactly where the need is,” he said. “That, along with local stewardship, is what makes this so special.”
Criteria for enlisting the help of the Giving Grove in creating a community orchard are straightforward: In addition to available land, at least two families in the neighborhood must commit to the project long-term; water needs to be readily accessible; and the harvest must be shared throughout the neighborhood. Along with nutritional value and flavor, tree varieties are selected based on disease resistance, climate adaptability and low maintenance requirements.
While the program has been a success in providing greater access to fresh fruits for low-income families, the benefits extend well beyond diet and nutrition. Greater interaction and a renewed sense of community among residents of hard-pressed neighborhoods, a new sense of purpose for those involved in the cultivation, and a lessening of urban blight in areas where the orchards are planted inevitably flow from the program, Reiman said.
“I’m biased, but I think we’re on to something really big with this,” he said. “It is going remarkably well and exceeding everyone’s expectations. Our board feels like we have a moral obligation to spread the word to other cities about the impact a program like this can have.”
Several cities, including St. Louis and Birmingham, Alabama, already have reached out to learn more about how to make similar initiatives work in their communities. Omaha likewise is exploring the concept.
One constant throughout the Giving Grove’s evolution has been the support of Health Forward, Reiman said. The foundation was among the first to provide funding for the idea, which was the brainchild of three area men, Kevin Birzer, Greg Finkle and Ray Makalous. The trio was committed to providing more sustainable, nutrient-rich food to the area’s growing number of hungry citizens.
“The Health Care Foundation took a risk on us, because it was a different kind of idea, and they’ve been with us every step of the way: Supportive, inquisitive and encouraging,” he said. “I can say unequivocally that we would not have been able to do this without them as a partner.”
Learn more about food insecurity at costoffoodinsecurity.com