URI Master Gardeners help Thundermist Health Center maintain garden for low-income clients

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KINGSTON, R.I. – June 30, 2014 – Perched on a slight hill behind the repurposed mill that houses Thundermist Health Center in West Warwick are 36 raised garden beds where local residents – mostly low-income clients of the health center – grow tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and other crops to feed their families. Now in its third year, Thundermist Grows is a project designed to provide healthy food in an area that some call a food desert.

Guiding the health center and the local gardeners several days a week during the growing season is Janice Marielle, a University of Rhode Island Master Gardener, who serves as a volunteer consultant on everything from weed and pest control to soil chemistry and fertilization.

“I’m the garden troubleshooter,” said Marielle, a retired nurse anesthetist from North Kingstown who was trained by URI to work with communities and local agencies interested in establishing community gardens. “And it gives me so much joy to be here.”

Marielle said that many low-income residents suffer from nutrition-related illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease and obesity, yet they have little access to healthy foods, especially fresh vegetables. The Thundermist community garden helps address that problem, and those that maintain a garden plot agree to leave 10 percent of their crop in the health center waiting room for any client to take home.

“The community garden is important because it is a cornerstone of our model of care,” said Chuck Jones, Thundermist chief executive officer. “Our patients come to Thundermist to improve their health; our providers work in teams to coordinate their care and to help everyone who walks through these doors. The garden is an extension of that philosophy. You can’t stay well without access to fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s why we created the garden, and that’s why we continue to dedicate our resources to its success.”

According to Eliza Sutton, healthy food access manager at Thundermist, the health center doesn’t stop at just providing land for gardening. It also hosts a weekly farmers market and invites students from Johnson and Wales University to give cooking demonstrations.

“We want our clients to learn how to use what is grown here, to taste it, so they’ll want to continue eating healthy,” Sutton said. “It’s important that everyone in the community have access to healthy fresh foods.”

The garden has not only succeeded in providing food for local residents, but it is helping to build community, too. Many local organizations have contributed to it success, including volunteers from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island, United Natural Foods, Inc., and students at West Warwick High School, who built the raised beds. The URI Master Gardener Association contributed a $300 grant for the purchase of gardening tools.

“The trained URI Master Gardeners who serve as consultants at school and community gardens are there to help beginning gardeners feel confident enough to grow their own food,” said Vanessa Venturini, the Master Gardener program coordinator at URI. “They serve as conduits to the free seed program, gardening hotline, planting calendar and other gardening information, all resources of the University and URI Cooperative Extension.”

The results of the Thundermist project show on the happy faces of the local gardeners. For instance, one enthusiastic elderly man rides his bicycle several miles to maintain his garden plot, and when he is finished for the day, he always stays to watch the sunset. A young mother brings her daughter to the garden every day and has learned to collect seeds from her plants to use in succeeding years.

Marielle, who describes the garden as “small but mighty,” said she hopes to help Thundermist establish a garden of therapeutic plants in coming years as another way of contributing to the wellbeing of local residents. And she looks forward to continuing to assist the gardeners for years to come.

“We’re so happy to have Janice and the Master Gardeners to help us,” said Sutton. “She’s tireless, and she has given so much to the garden and the community.”

Marielle isn’t the first URI Master Gardener to serve as a consultant at the Thundermist garden. Former West Warwick resident Mark Guertin initiated the project before turning it over to Marielle.

Thundermist Grows is one of more than 25 community gardens in which URI Master Gardeners play a role. Some, like Thundermist, have one Master Gardener serving in an advisory capacity to help beginning gardeners and to connect them with other available gardening resources. Other projects engage numerous Master Gardeners in designing, planting and maintaining gardens to grow produce for food pantries, to educate children at local schools, or to demonstrate particular gardening practices.

Pictured above

URI Master Gardener Janice Marielle (left) and Eliza Sutton of Thundermist Health Center pose in Thundermist’s community garden.

Photo by Mike Salerno photography