Opinion: A Garden for Homeless Children & Families Has Nutritional & Brain Development Benefits


Children gardening | Image by Rawpixel.com

As a 4th generation Dallasite and gardener, many of my fondest childhood memories were spent gardening with my parents and grandparents.

Touching the plants, learning about their health benefits, understanding how they grow, and actually being part of our ‘family plant team’ imprinted on my mental and physical character-molding traits.

Of course, we all understand the power of food to connect friends and families. Yet, through family gardening and cooking one of grandma’s old recipes, we see that food is one of the most sustainable inter-generational connectors.

“Food Insecure” & Dallas’ Homeless Children 

At Vogel Alcove, we serve Dallas’ most vulnerable youth, homeless children – infants to six years old. Sadly, approximately 4,500 children in Dallas will go to sleep tonight without a home. And more than 11 million children nationwide live in “food insecure” homes, which means those households don’t have enough food for every family member to lead a healthy life.

Gardening plays an essential role in our work at Vogel Alcove. Our gardens are “nature’s sunlight,” shining a light on our mission of “rewiring brains, repairing hearts, and restoring families.”

Most of the kids at Vogel Alcove will experience a garden, plant a seed and learn about a seed library for the first time through our gardening program. We show children that vegetables can be healthy, fun, and tasty and that with love, proper care, and community, they grow stronger each day.

Vogel Alcove’s children and parents, 88% of whom are single moms, learn how to grow plants and vegetables in the ‘big vegetable garden’ as I like to call it. These vegetables are harvested and cooked in our USDA-regulated farm-to-table kitchen and provided to the families we serve. This immersion into the plant life cycle during a child’s brain development years is immensely impactful.

Brain Development & Therapeutic Benefits 

Our gardens also provide a host of tactile learning experiences which are essential to a child’s social and emotional learning. Vogel Alcove’s therapeutic sensory garden contains plants that create visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimulation helping children in trauma overcome the negative impacts of their experiences.

These stimuli reduce the high cortisol/adrenaline levels that children in trauma engage in fight-flight-freeze behavior. Plants that grow to eye level help increase attention span, and pathways that require walking through plantings help to reduce tactile defensiveness. Additionally, using art, music, and hands-on activities like digging and making mud pies extends the garden experience and improves motor skills.

Plants Need Community – Kids Need Community 

One communal planting system that I use with children at Vogel Alcove is the Native American ‘three sisters’ approach, which is the symbiotic relationship between three plants: corn, beans, and squash.

Although the crops themselves are known as the Three Sisters, they are an interconnected family of plants supporting one another’s needs and growth.

The children also learn about the rich history of these three crops, which have been the center of Native American agriculture and culinary traditions for centuries. It is for good reason as these three crops complement each other in the garden and nutritionally.

It’s powerful for children to learn that plants also need a solid communal network to survive. And, it’s empowering for our kids and their parents to experience first-hand the resiliency of plants and see that they can survive with proper care despite seasonal and environmental challenges.

In our monthly “Moms & Dads Garden Club” meetings, Vogel Alcove’s parents also learn about planting and caring for flowers and veggies and take this knowledge back to the self-sufficient homes they’re building.

I’m thankful for the knowledge and resources provided by the Dallas Public Library Seed Library, a little-known seed gem that more Dallasite gardeners can use and support. The pandemic greatly impacted their seed library, and when I left the Dallas Public Library’s Seed Team in April 2022, the seed library supply was lower, so seed donations are always welcomed.

Anyone can learn more about the Vogel Alcove garden at www.vogelalcove.org.

Lastly, I want to leave you with my favorite quote from Audrey Hepburn, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” With our garden, and yours, we are all planting seeds that could make a difference in our lives and those we touch.

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