Neighborhood activist Claudia Heron gets to work raking away wood chips.
Throw a dynamic hospital pediatrician, an Oakland food activist group, a fiery neighborhood community, and a senior center together into a pot (or a few square blocks) and you might come up with something like the Healthy Hearts Youth Garden, an up-and-coming community garden at North Oakland’s Dover Street Park.
Last Sunday, a group of about 20 neighbors and garden advocates gathered to dig up invasive bermudagrass and rake away wood chips along a sizable patch of ground in the northeast corner of the park. The area – bounded by fruit trees – will soon be planted with vegetables, said Max Cadji, one of the garden project’s leaders.
While community gardens abound in the Bay Area, this one’s different from most: The Healthy Hearts Youth Garden is possibly the first garden in the country associated with an obesity reduction clinic, said co-founder Jen Matthews, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland.
“As far as we know it’s the first community garden that’s associated … with a weight management clinic,” said Matthews.
The garden is a joint project of the hospital, the Healthy Hearts Obesity Prevention Clinic, which serves Alameda County children at risk for obesity and is located at the hospital, and Phat Beets Produce, a local organization whose mission is providing equal, affordable access to healthy food for North Oakland families.
Matthews, the Children’s Hospital pediatrician, said a number of students from the Healthy Hearts clinic will become paid garden interns. This spring, these interns will lead garden programs and tours for other children enrolled in the obesity prevention program. The garden group plans to work with a nutritionist to evaluate the impact of participation in garden activities on the health of children from the clinic.
Phat Beets, has worked with the hospital before to help create a healthier food environment in the area. They currently hold a Tuesday farmer’s market at the hospital, where farmers sell affordable produce, and will be opening a weekly Saturday market at the hospital this July.
A neighborhood project
The Healthy Hearts garden location at Dover St. Park, just a few walkable blocks north of the hospital’s site at 51st street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, is a product of the past activism of a neighborhood that fought for the space and made it their own.
Sunday’s groundbreaking built on a series of “First Sunday” workdays that local resident Claudia Heron, started a few years ago. Heron rallied the neighborhood around cleaning up the park after a family was accosted in the area. “I made a whole bunch of fliers and leafleted the neighborhood,” said Heron.
Residents at the event pointed to the years of neighborhood effort that helped the park – which features a playground, a walking path, and a lawn, in addition to the forthcoming garden – reach a point where it could host something like a pioneering garden project.
“Years ago, when we moved in, it was an empty lot that was full of weeds,” said Chris Vernon, who has lived in the area for 19 years.
While the lot was still weed-covered and vacant, the city tried to turn the area into a development, with a grocery store and other shops. The community had other plans, and persisted in convincing the city to restore it into a park instead, Vernon said.
From young to old, and in between
To Heron and other locals, it is important that the garden project integrate as many aspects of the community as possible. Heron wrote a grant to support installation of raised beds, so residents of the North Oakland Senior Center, which abuts the park, could have access to planting and growing food in the space.
Vernon, the longtime resident, is also pleased to see the garden serve various parts of the community. “I truly like the idea that there are people coming from the senior center and children coming from the Children’s Hospital,” he said.
Neighborhood work days in the park will continue on the first Sunday of every month, and residents will be able to come pick vegetables on specified days, said Phat Beets’ Cadji. The garden will also host workdays every Wednesday from 3-7 p.m. where clinic participants as well as residents and volunteers can come plant, weed, shovel, and do whatever is necessary to get the garden growing, said Matthews.
As the sun beamed brightly down on hard-shoveling workers, Pascale Schmidt, who has two children and lives next to the park, passed around oranges. She sees the garden as a way to meet new people and get to know people. “For us, it’s a way to connect with the neighborhood, get a real good sense of the community.”