New push to build community gardens in Downey

DOWNEY - Hoping to inspire citywide health, neighborhood ties, and student learning, city officials this week moved a step closer to adopting a code amendment that will allow residents to establish public community gardens. "For obvious reasons, it's good for Downey or any community," said Carey Smith, a speech pathologist with the Downey Unified School District who spearheaded the movement for a community garden.

"Planting and gardening -- these activities are few and far between. We want kids to connect with the community in healthy ways, this is an opportunity."

While councilmembers applauded the concept on Tuesday, under the city's current zoning code, community gardens are not allowed on public or private grounds.

Smith and Eyleen Nieva, however, have been working with the Downey Green Task Force to change that.

In July, Smith and Nieva, who also works in the DUSD, founded The Growing Garden, a vision to create an explorative learning environment for children that combines their formal training in speech pathology with their mutual interests in creative, active, and sustainable living.

The Growing Garden promises a place where kids can plant, tend, and reap the benefits of a garden, using it as a resource to learn about healthy sustainable foods, engage in active learning, and become more confident communicators.

Smith says she noticed the growth in her students at Rio Hondo Elementary when they were given hands-on activities like planting and art projects.

"It's more than a garden...we need a central place for cooking classes, art, music, fitness classes," she said. "We want kids to be just as excited about being creative and healthy if not more so than video games."

On Tuesday, the City Council directed staff to dedicate 100 hours of staff time to drafting a proposal for a code amendment that will allow community gardens in specific zones not including residential neighborhoods.

"We wanted to limit it to areas that wouldn't trigger a full blown environmental impact report," said Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Vasquez who acknowledged a full report could cost the city thousands of dollars.

"I think a community garden would fit nicely in a utility corridor, somewhere centrally-located for field trips. With obesity and chronic disease soaring, a community garden can encourage physical, mental health and community ties."

Carey says they intend to establish The Growing Garden at the Moravian Church of Downey, located at 10337 Old River School Road. In addition to an empty plot of land adjacent to the building, the church is also offering the garden room space for classes.

"Once we have the layout for the garden, we'll have kids getting dirty, planting the seeds. They'll be after school hours and kids can sign up to take care of the plants," Smith said.

"The difference in our classes is there'll be an emphasis on speech and language development."

Mayor Mario Guerra praised the concept as a step in the right direction for the city, which has placed its focus on health and wellness over the last nine months.

"It's exciting -- it's both economically-friendly and educational. There are over 90 of them in Los Angeles County -- this is who we can be," Guerra said. "Fresh tomatoes are fresh tomatoes, you can't get any better than that. From farm to table, this is what we should be looking at."

On Nov. 16, The Growing Garden, which has pledged to work with Gangs Out Of Downey and the Stay Gallery on future projects, will host its first planting event at the Moravian Church with live music, family activities, and food from 2 - 6 p.m.

"The Healthy Downey program has been well-received. I only imagine this will be one more thing to be well-received and embraced by the community," said Smith. "I have high hopes they'll come back with a plan to implement [the gardens]."

********** Published: Sept. 26, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 24