Thanks to rising costs and shrinking budgets, the conversation among public officials over the past few years hasn’t been whether to cut programs and services, but which ones should get the ax. Social services, in particular, have taken a huge hit. Despite that trend, McDowell County in North Carolina has not only created a new social services program, but it’s done so in a way that barely dips into the government’s wallet.
Like most of the country, McDowell County has seen a huge jump in the number of people out of work. In 2009, 14.8 percent of the county was jobless -- far above the national unemployment rate that peaked at 10.1 percent that year. For many in the Work First Family Assistance program, the county’s version of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the loss of a job means the loss of benefits, which include a monthly check and Medicaid coverage. To keep these benefits, recipients are required to work or perform community service for a certain number of hours each week.
But the county had a problem. There were very few places where people could actually perform community service duties. So the McDowell County Department of Social Services (DSS) created a new opportunity from scratch: a community garden.
Under the Work First Community Garden Project, volunteers put in a little bit of hard work, and in exchange, receive their Work First Family Assistance program benefits, along with professional job training and nutritious food for their families.
With three grants and two private donations adding up to just $6,500, the DSS ran the project for two harvesting seasons (from April to October 2009 and again in 2010) and still has money left for a couple more, says DSS Director Phillip Hardin. Of the $6,500, just $1,000 came from the local health department. The nearly two-acre plot of land and most of the necessary equipment were donated by more than a dozen local businesses. DSS kept personnel costs low by staffing the project with existing employees. Each DSS worker helps out in the garden approximately one day per month. That’s enough to keep the garden fully staffed, but infrequent enough to impact employees’ existing workloads.
The garden wasn’t just designed with Work First recipients in mind. It was also created to help the increasing number of food-stamp users, who can use their Food and Nutritional Services benefits to buy seeds and grow their own food in a plot assigned to them by the project. In addition, anyone (welfare recipient or not) can lend a hand in exchange for fresh produce. For anybody unable to perform the physically demanding work, such as people who receive disability benefits, the DSS instead offers craft projects -- like making row markers, signs or scarecrows. While volunteers till (or craft) away, social workers conduct informal job-training classes. The county has actually hired some of the volunteers to work in the garden or in the DSS agency itself. For everyone else, the project provides marketable skills, job experience and a reference contact for potential future employers.
While the project may not have secured a job for each volunteer, it does provide a basic necessity for every single participant: food. And it’s healthful food, which is typically more expensive and thus not often a part of the regular diet for lower income families. The garden has yielded thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables for the volunteers. What they couldn’t use was donated to the local senior center and several homeless shelters. More than $1,300 worth of produce was given to the McDowell Senior Center last year, for example, providing its residents with better nutrition at no cost.
In a county that suffers from high rates of obesity (34 percent) and diabetes (11 percent), project coordinators hope the garden will encourage healthier eating habits over the long term. Local health department workers have volunteered at the site, conducting classes on the health benefits of gardening and food preservation. Attendance for the sessions hasn’t been as high as the county had hoped -- about 10 to 20 people usually show up. Officials acknowledge that such a shift in eating habits won’t happen overnight. “Some of this is a cultural issue,” said Hardin, noting that Southern cooking often consists of foods high in fat, cholesterol and calories. “What you eat and how you live is ingrained by your parents. [We’re] trying to change things that took generations to happen.” But he says he has started to see a difference in volunteers’ diets.
The program has been slow to start this year, mainly because the garden site, which is on private land, is no longer available. But Hardin says he expects the garden will be up and running again soon. Unlike most government services, the Work First Community Garden Project is virtually immune to budget cuts because it doesn’t come with a price tag for the county. “It’s kind of hard to cut nothing,” which is what it costs to keep the program running, says Hardin. All it really takes, he says, is “maybe a little sweat and tears.”