Cultivating Health and Community

Kelsey Donnellan, ’15, Interdisciplinary Studies, is a UMBC Resident Assistant and Director of Academics for The Garden.

Kelsey Donnellan 2The leading cause of death in the US is diet-related disease. This is preventable. We are all surrounded by the statistics and stories of misery. I, for one, feel overwhelmed. How do we stop this?

Public health professionals have proposed solutions, some more successful than others. I believe the best solution would integrate local movements, policy changes, and marketing overhauls.

Last summer I took part in a local movement by working with Veggielution Community Farm, in my hometown of San Jose, California. VCF was established by San Jose State University students as a working urban farm with a mission to facilitate authentic relationships across differences in age, income and culture, cultivate leaders, and inspire health and happiness. Part of the farm is designated as the Youth Garden, with themed beds in which children grow vegetables and flowers.

As an education intern, I had the opportunity to work with children of all ages, families of varying sizes, and adults passionate about securing food for our local community. The people living in neighborhoods surrounding VCF are predominately Mexican, Vietnamese, and Native American. The farming manager at VCF took his role in securing food for all seriously and worked with the community to establish crops that were culturally appropriate. Through my internship I learned more about the Native American culture from the Santa Clara Valley and delighted in some of the traditional vegetables (such as nopales).

The children I worked with showed me firsthand that despite their notorious resistance to eating vegetables, they will happily eat what they grow. When giving them tours of the farm, I would jump around, wave my hands, speak about the plants excitedly. The children were engaged, they were interested, they were willing to eat borage flowers. Don’t worry, I fed them more than flowers!

One particularly hot July Wednesday I worked hard in the Youth Garden to eradicate weeds and willow starts. Sweat dripped from every limb as I fought with each willow start. After six hours of this I felt that I had barely made a dent in the work that needed to be done. Three days later, I returned to the Youth Garden to see two young farmers picking strawberries from the same plot I had spent hours clearing. They filled their harvesting plate with beautiful red strawberries.

After washing the strawberries, we sliced them into pieces for everyone to share. They were the juiciest, sweetest strawberries I’ve ever eaten. Each child in the garden lit up, their eyes widened, and they reached for another slice of strawberry. All the hours battling the willow starts were worth it. I hope to see more children taking hold of the food system for themselves.

A small child, about the age of 4, wearing a blue ball cap, boots, shorts, and a soaking wet shirt, ran by with a can of water. He stopped as the water sloshed back and forth in his watering can. Head held high, and in a loud voice, he said, “I am like a real farmer.” I responded, “Yes, yes you are. How are our plants doing?” He said, “Good!” and ran off with his water can splashing all over the pathway.

That is why I do this work: to inspire children to get involved in agriculture, and so to orient them to  lives enriched by deep connections to the land and to each other. There is so much more we all need to do to promote healthier lifestyles and communities, but I know it was a summer well spent, sowing seeds of change to come.

Contact the author, Kelsey Donnellan, at

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