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Gardening With the Generations

Older Americans are helping teens grow their lives

Vel Scott promotes community gardens and healthy eating.

Vel Scott plants chocolate mint with granddaughter Kayla Scott-Craig, a fourth-generation family gardener. — Courtesy Vel Scott

Across the country, older Americans are reaching out to children and teens who need extra attention — and they are doing it through gardening. From the combination of willing and able adults, kids in need, and tough times grew intergenerational programs in Cleveland and Olympia, Wash., efforts that have yielded not only good produce but remarkable results in those who are willing to get their hands dirty.

See also: Gardening tips that save you money.

Gardeners, it turns out, are a group that has the time, and will, to help. According to a National Gardening Association (NGA) survey, two-thirds of all gardeners are 45 or older, but only one-third of them have children living at home.

At the same time, a lousy economy has only highlighted the need to learn how to grow food. The number of households raising their own food increased from 36 million in 2008 to 41 million in 2009, according to the NGA. About 1 million households raised their food in some kind of neighborhood plot in 2009, and 5 million non-gardening households said they would probably participate in a community garden if one started up nearby.

Vel's Purple Oasis

One day last summer, Vel Scott, 70, set up a table in her garden and chopped tomatoes, peppers, cilantro and green onions that had just been picked by members of the environmental club of John Hay High School. She added garlic and oil and set the bowl of salsa next to some corn chips. The chips were the bait; the vegetables were the message. "Sometimes I will buy a tomato at the store and put it next to one they have just picked," she says. "I want them to see and taste the difference."

Here in this East Cleveland neighborhood, Vel's Purple Oasis spreads across 1.5 acres that Vel and her husband, Don, bought when they owned a nightclub across the street. Though the well-loved club closed in 1998, Vel still knows nearly everyone in the neighborhood. After she lost her husband to heart disease last year, she began to focus her energies on the Oasis.

Vel grew up near the Oasis in the 1950s, back when people shopped at small businesses owned by locals. When she started the garden in 2008, Vel knew only a little about growing food. But the nightclub had taught her how to grow a business, and years of cooking for Don had taught her a lot about how to make soul food tasty without loading it up with salt and fat. She was driven to share what she knew. The need was clearly there. Nearby residents are mostly poor and African American. It's more than a mile from the Oasis to the nearest grocery store that has a good produce section, and a lot of Vel's neighbors don't have cars.

"Whole Foods isn't part of the culture of my neighborhood," she says. "The reason people here don't eat healthy is because they don't know any better. If you don't know about healthy food, you're not going to be comfortable eating it."

Next: This gardening group helps low-income households. >>

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