By Kyla Kent

Updated: Saturday, April 15, 2017

Most likely, you are a gardener yourself and already know the benefits of gardening. How relaxing it feels when you dig your hands into the cool soil. When the leaves sprout up and you think to yourself, “I did it! Wow, I created this beautiful, green plant.” You already know how much you enjoy picking the yellow squash, zucchini, and the thousand of green beans to prepare an epic dinner for your family. But if you are not a gardener, then I’ve got you interested. Because there is something amazing about growing your own food (try it!).

By employing foster youth in urban agriculture, Growing Alliances connects the dots; the demand for increased urban agriculture and the need to provide more tools for Youth who have been involved in foster care, so they may achieve their goals. That is why urban agriculture and the benefits it bestows is so important to our program. So if you are not a gardener, then I am writing to you. To inform you of the amazing benefits that urban agriculture can have on an individual and the community.

Have you ever heard that surrounding yourself with green plants can have positive effects on your health? If you haven’t, you should probably go to the store and buy a green shrub to include in your office space because it’s true! One study found that workers with workstation views which included green elements were more satisfied at work and had more patience, less frustration, increased enthusiasm for work, and fewer health problems.¹ Many studies since have concluded that including plants in daily life routines have significant effects on psychological health and human well-being. This includes improved mental, physical, and emotional health—and an increased quality of life. Whether adult or youth, urban agriculture consistently shows positive results on increasing psychological health.

Improves Mental Health
Working with plants and in the outdoors, benefits the mental health, mental outlook, and personal wellness of individuals. The cultivation of plants triggers both illness prevention and healing responses.5 Health professionals use plants and gardening materials to help patients of diverse ages with mental illness improve social skills, self-esteem, and use of leisure time.5 The field of horticulture therapy promotes plant-human relationships to induce relaxation, and reduce stress, fear and anger, blood pressure, and muscle tension.5 Significant research shows that natural scenes evoke positive emotions, facilitate cognitive functioning, and promote recovery from mental fatigue for people who are in good mental health.4

Improves Physical Health
As my yoga instructor likes to say, “The mind and body are one”; a part of psychological health is satisfied through maintaining physical health. Urban agriculture can dissipate little or intensive amounts of energy. Gardeners report that garden activity increases self-esteem, pride, confidence, personal satisfaction, and efficacy.² Even moderate forms of garden exercise can increase muscle strength and endurance in activity-reduced individuals.² From a research study in 2003, researchers Kien and Chiodo found gardening and nature adventure education in after-school programs increased energy expenditures of 12-year-olds by 60%.4

Improves Emotional Health
Gardening is a lifetime activity affiliated with satisfying labor, physical and mental relaxations, socializing and a means to produce food. For that reason, urban agriculture can be a key element in successful health intervention programs because it addresses simultaneously the physical, mental, spiritual, and social health of individuals and their communities.² Social engagement is positively correlated with personal attention to health care and wellness.5 Food production through urban agriculture teaches job skills and offers entrepreneurial opportunities. Inventive prison garden programs seek to improve personal health and mental outlook through pride in nurturing the life of a garden.5

Stress Relief
More than 100 studies have shown that relaxation and stress reduction are significant benefits associated with spending time in green areas.² Research is also finding that opportunities to connect with nature as a child are important for the promotion of wellness for future adults. For example, Mayer and Frantz (2005) considered that opportunities to connect with nature in childhood promote the value of green spaces for refuge from stress and anxiety.¹

Urban Agriculture and Youth
Extensive evidence shows that school-based garden programs have significant health effects on young people. School garden programs teach a skill and a lifetime hobby that provides exercise, mental stimulation, and social interactions.4 Many youth programs included nutrition education elements, as well as, job training and youth leadership opportunities, where several researchers found these programs were successful in achieving their goals.3 GRuB, a similar school-based program in Olympia, is one example of a successful organization that works with the local youth through urban agriculture. One of their many accomplishments includes organizing the Kitchen Garden Project which has built over 2,200 free gardens for low-income families since 1993. With parallel ideas in mind, Growing Alliances strives to bring Bellingham’s community a related mission: to help youth in foster care connect with future vocational opportunities through urban agriculture.

In addition to dedicated urban agriculture programs, contact with nature helps children to develop cognitive, emotional, and behavioral connections to their nearby social and biophysical environments.¹ Nature experiences are important for encouraging imagination and creativity, cognitive and intellectual development, and social relationships all of which improve the child’s mental health and function.² Nature can provide both background and objects for play and learning. Among older children, exposure to nature encourages exploration and building activities, which can improve problem-solving abilities, ability to respond to changing contexts, as well as participation in group decision-making.² Exploration in the outdoors, gardens, backyards, parks, wilderness and many such environments encourage curiosity, engagement, focused learning, mindfulness and reflective practice.¹

Urban agriculture encourages social contact by serving as informal meeting places and sites for groups and shared activities.² These gardens can serve as a sort of eco-therapy, as marginalized people can find empowerment, respite from stresses, and personal involvement in environmental management.² Urban agriculture in close proximity to homes encourage exercise, which can improve mental health.² As described earlier, studies indicate that having views of nearby nature and living within green spaces can improve worker productivity, reduce stress, and improve school performance. Usable urban gardens or green spaces not only foster a sense of community but also provide psychological benefits among its members.

This summer, Growing Alliances will be starting its first foster youth program! The youth will spend a portion of their time at our ‘practice plot’ that has been generously provided by the Chuckanut Center, a community-centered urban garden that provides garden plots for group projects. Here, staff and youth employees will practice gardening techniques by growing food for our own consumption and distribution into the community. Each week, we will allocate a few hours to each of our partner community gardens, to help them flourish. During the off-season, youth will have the opportunity to continue employment through winter to event plan and budget for the coming season. Growing Alliances will host regular networking events throughout the year, to which we will invite Bellingham employers to meet our stellar youth employees. We will not be successful in our mission if our youth employees graduate from our program without being registered for further education or employment.

References
1. The_Role_of_Nature-Based_Experiences_in_the_Develo.pdf
2. https://depts.washington.edu/hhwb/Thm_Mental.html
3. http://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/sarep/publications/food-and-society/ualitreview-2013.pdf
4. http://community-wealth.org/sites/clone.community-wealth.org/files/downloads/paper-bellows-brown-smit.pdf
5. http://alivebynature.com/health-benefits-urban-agriculture/