Making Impacts Through Community Gardens: A Conversation With Marcus Cyprian
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Marcus Cyprian serves as the Horticulture Assistant and School Garden Program Coordinator at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Gaston County Center in Dallas, NC – just 20 minutes west of Charlotte. As the School Garden Program Coordinator, some of his responsibilities include recruiting, training, and coordinating volunteers; procuring teaching materials and program supplies; and developing and fostering relationships with new and current schools. He also has community development responsibilities which include working with community organizations to build capacity through program collaboration, engaging diverse audiences through programming, and identifying community issues and solutions. Although his responsibilities vary, he shared that his favorite part about the role “is the opportunity to evolve and adapt to ever changing education and societal landscapes when helping community groups solve issues they face.”
Marcus’ Primary Projects & Programs
In Gaston County, Marcus prioritizes working with community gardens to build capacity within communities in order to improve healthy food access to areas that are chronically under-resourced. One project that he and his colleagues have collaborated on with Kintegra Health and the Highland Neighborhood Association is the Healthy Harvest Outreach. This program introduces horticulture topics to youth working with association members to maintain a community garden. “From 2018-2021 we were able to successfully grow sizable amounts of vegetables in 20 raised garden beds.” The harvest was put into CSA type packages for individuals in the neighborhood who were a part of the Healthier Highland Program. Although this program showed great success, it did come with a few challenges. Coordinating workdays at the garden, procuring goods or services due to budget constraints such as proper soil amendments and electricity installation were a few things Marcus and his team had to work through. Having access to healthier food enabled program participants to better control or even eliminate health conditions such as hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. Marcus shared that this program would not have been possible without the support of his colleagues. With the support of his County Extension Director, David Fogarty, they were able to connect resources to members in the program. The Area Agriculture and Consumer Agriculture Agent, Payton Flowers, helped with infrastructure projects such as building trellises and installing irrigation systems.
Marcus also hosts a Healthy Harvest School Gardening Program, Healthy Harvest Cultivate and Cook Culinary Summer Camp, and a Gaston County Schools Nutrition Center Collaboration. These projects all serve his goal of connecting his community with healthy foods.
The Healthy Harvest School Gardening Program helps foster youths’ understanding of where their food comes from, how it is grown, and the benefits of healthy eating. Weekly lessons for third graders focus on plant science objectives while common vegetables such as radishes, carrots, red leaf lettuce, kale, spinach and beets, as well as a few lesser known vegetables like kohlrabi, are planted in the school garden to give students a hands-on look at what they are learning in the classroom.
In response to COVID causing quality and demand issues in certain vegetables such as leafy greens, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Gaston County Center and the Gaston County School Nutrition Center collaborated to determine whether or not they would be able to grow vegetables for the School Lunch Program on-site. Marcus teamed up with his County Extension Director, David Fogarty, his Agriculture & Consumer Horticulture Agent, Payton Flowers, and Angela Calamia, Director of School Nutrition for Gaston County Schools to see what they could come up with. They took soil samples of the proposed test plot and then began tilling and amending the soil. “With the help of 17 volunteers, we were able to lay row covers, plant and mulch walkways for a 50’ x 50’ growing space.
This growing space produced about 1,200lbs of yellow squash and zucchini as well as several hundred pounds of tomatoes, lettuce, and spinach! This led us to believe that the school nutrition center, with proper planning, could grow a sizable amount of some of the vegetables that it uses in its central kitchen facility and may open a door for collaboration with the school systems culinary and CTE programs.” Marcus shared that the school system collaboration is unique because the feasibility is contingent upon there being a central kitchen facility and Gaston County has the only central kitchen in North Carolina. He does think the effort could be replicated across the state with a little outside the box thinking and ingenuity!
Gaston County’s teamwork and local food programming for access to healthier foods doesn’t stop with the few programs we have mentioned here. They have many other community gardens, cooking classes, summer camps, and more that you can read about in this local article.
Marcus’ Final Thoughts
When asked what he thought the future of local foods would look like, Marcus shared that over the next 10-15 years he hopes to see more conservation efforts to keep rural farm land out of the hands of commercial developers. He believes one of the largest components of these conservation efforts needs to be making farmland, loans and grants accessible to minorities and non-traditional growers. He also shared how important he thinks it is to incorporate agriculture and similar topics into school curricula. “Whether agriculture is a large part of the economy and identity of a county or not, food access will forever be a necessity and the best way to ensure sustainable access is to educate our youth on how to produce it.” – Marcus Cyprian