In 2018, GardenCorps, a state-based AmericaCorps program, put out a call to locate host sites for community gardens in Arkansas. They had placed service members at 15 different sites in the past year and seen them grow not only produce, but relationships. Standing out amongst the group of GardenCorps sites is a community garden that’s located on a former construction lay-down lot owned by Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Established in 2015, Centennial Community Garden produced more than 4,000 pounds of fresh produce last year, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, greens, potatoes, corn, peas, onions, carrots, beans, okra, watermelon, strawberries and blackberries. Tended by a part-time garden manager and a growing number of volunteers, each harvest is donated directly to the local Helping Hand of Greater Little Rock pantry.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital started Centennial Community Garden with the goal of producing food for the neighborhood and increasing community engagement. In 2016, the only grocery store for miles closed, creating a food desert for those living nearby, and for anyone discharged from the hospital. Recognizing that fresh produce is key to health and wellness, the hospital set about the work of repurposing and recycling resources to build ten raised beds of produce the first year. In 2017, they hired Centennial Garden manager Ben Pope, who’s enthusiasm is evident as he recounts his first days on the job in an interview with P. Allen Smith Garden Style: “Let’s go crazy and really try to grow some food.” That he did, more than doubling the size of the garden to a full city block in one year.
Centennial Community Garden is rooted in shared resources. There’s a small budget, but at Centennial, it’s about using what is available, such as a repurposed construction fence turned into trellis or lawn clippings from a landscaping neighbor. Much of the compost comes from the community and the hospital’s maintenance team brings bagged leaves to the garden. It was a pragmatic decision to partner with Helping Hands — Children’s Hospital wanted to offer a food pantry and Helping Hand needed produce. Sharon Coussens, a volunteer at Helping Hand, explains, “People come [to the hospital] for weeks, months, when they finally get released, they haven’t been able to work, they’re emotionally exhausted, financially exhausted.” Margaret Douglas, Helping Hand administrator, packs bags for families with food she would eat, and then a “good little snack for the children.” She says, “To offer a bag of food makes all the difference in the world.”