Grambling, Lincoln Prep team for community garden

Lincoln Preparatory School students recently planted seeds at Grambling’s City Hall that will be used to plant vegetables in a pair of community gardens planned for the city. (Photo by KWENITA LEWS-GARNER)

By T. Scott Boatright

Members of Lincoln Preparatory School’s TAPS (Teen and Police Service) Academy recently showed more than a growing interest in helping avoid food insecurity for residents of Grambling.

In fact, they showed off their Panther green thumbs by helping plant seedlings that will soon be placed at a pair of community gardens — one behind City Hall on King Street and the other at the site of previous community gardens on Gum Street.

It’s all the brainchild of Grambling City Council member DeVaria Ponton, who was sworn into her first term of office on Jan. 1. Her campaign platform included an initiative to bring back the city’s community garden program.

Ponton, a master gardener who grows much of the produce she eats, said she developed her love of growing vegetables during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was involved with Grambling’s first community garden back in 2012 and had never forgotten it,” Ponton said. “So when the pandemic hit nobody was comfortable about getting out and going to the store unless they really had to. So it just made sense to start growing my own.

“At first it was only tomatoes and cucumbers. And they grew really well. So much so that I started growing more and more of all kinds of different vegetables that I like. And I found out that with a little work and love, anyone can grow a lot of their own food.”

And as she decided to run for Grambling’s City Council, she realized that now is a good time to bring back Grambling’s Community Garden program.

When Ponton first participated in Grambling’s initial Community Garden program, the city had then been recently designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a food desert, which means that it had been determined that residents of Grambling lacked access to high quality fresh and affordable foods.

Grambling now has a full-service grocery store, but concerns for city residents remain.

The USDA last year ranked Louisiana as the third hungriest state with 14.5% of residents experiencing food insecurity.

Only Mississippi (15.3%) and Arkansas (15%) ranked worse.

Lincoln Parish ranks 26th out of Louisiana’s 64 parishes in terms of food insecurity – not being able to  have access to sufficient, adequate quality food.

“Even with the grocery store, it’s no secret that our whole country is facing high prices, and sometimes temporary shortages, of food because of inflation and other issues we’re all trying to work through,” Ponton said. “So that was another reason to realize it was time to bring back the community garden.”

But there were other reasons Ponton was driven to rebuild the program.

“Grambling was once a farming community, it was once a big part – a cornerstone – of our community,” Ponton said. “So farming and gardening is part of our history, too, just as Grambling State University is.

“And our school children need to know their history and the roots they came from. It seemed like getting them involved in the Community Garden would be a great teaching tool for them.

A number of Lincoln Prep students recently completed the 11-week TAPS curriculum, which covers specific topic areas associated with children and youth safety such as violence, physical and sexual abuse, stalking, domestic trafficking, sexual exploitation and bullying.

The program is designed to change behavior, teach children about responsible decision making, the importance of participating in crime prevention projects and reducing the social distance between themselves and law enforcement authorities.

Last week, members of Lincoln Prep’s TAPS program along with a few Student Council members  joined with members of the Grambling Police Department to plant seeds in cardboard tubes from toilet tissue and paper towel rolls as well as biodegradable egg cartons.

“We planted seeds for a spring garden, so we planted zucchini, squash, two varieties of tomatoes, and some herbs,” Ponton said. “We’re just waiting for them to grow. They’ve only started sprouting now.”

Eventually those seedlings will be placed — containers and all, hence the need for biodegradability — at Grambling’s two community gardens.

“I thought it would be a fun yet still productive project for our young students,” Ponton said. “We’re off to a great start and just want to see this program keep growing and growing in years to come, just like the food we’ll be growing.

“These will be rotational gardens, so we’ll keep adding as we harvest and try to keep it going throughout all the seasons. We’ll probably plant the first round of seedlings in a couple of weeks. We’re just waiting for them to develop decent root systems to give them a better chance to grow.”

Grambling Mayor Alvin Bradley said the project is the kind he wants to see continue in his city.

“This is about people working together to help each other, the way it should be,” Bradley said. “It has my full support, which is why I came out to help the kids plant the seedlings. Working together toward a common goal — I can’t see enough of that, so I thank and applaud everyone working to help make this happen.”