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LU joins initiative to create South Park Community Garden

A recent initiative by Lamar University and the Greater South Park Neighborhoods Partnership to create a South Park Community Garden will begin with a   groundbreaking ceremony at the northwest corner of Jimmy Simmons Blvd. and Vermont Street on Oct. 8 from8 a.m. to noon.

“Lamar University is pleased to offer this resource to the students and community. For the last few years, we’ve had our own garden on campus, but now we can bring that effort into the community and expand it,” said Alicen Flosi, director of sustainability.

The garden project will be managed in a partnership between Lamar University, the City of Beaumont and the Lamar Institute of Technology to provide access to gardening space, training and nutritious food for students and locals. The project involves collaboration with local groups who support the goal of improving the area’s health and community pride.

“Beaumont has one of the highest rates of obesity in the United States and is the highest rate in Texas. Creating a garden allows families to produce healthy foods at no cost,” said Audine Rathbun, agency relation specialist for the South East Texas Food Bank.

Rathbun says the project is also a great opportunity for families new to gardening.

“They can take the knowledge learned from gardening in a community setting and help lower their food costs. It also is a family activity and a skill that can be passed on to younger generations and begin to break the cycle of poverty,” she said.

The first step towards the community garden is the construction of beds for planting. Volunteers will meet October 8 to put together the first beds, and participants may select a plot and complete a contract to care for it as well as collect the future produce. A portion of the garden will have plots that are accessible to people with disabilities. The garden’s completion will be gradual, as donations allow.

The idea for the garden originated with Dr. Japera Levine, a local foot and ankle specialist and Beaumont native who witnessed similar successful projects during her graduate studies across the country. When she read in the Beaumont Business Journal about the Greater South Park Neighborhoods Partnership, an initiative to revitalize South Park and attract new businesses to the area surrounding Lamar University, she was inspired to introduce the concept of a community garden.

“As a physician in this area, I treat a lot of people with metabolic disorders. That’s one of the reasons I was interested. A lot of people that walk in have blood pressure problems or cardiovascular disease because the food they eat is fried and over processed. In this area, it’s too hard for many to get to stores,” she said.

Levine says there are many factors that prevent South Park residents from accessing good nutrition, such as the distance to stores with healthy options and lack of transportation.

“It even goes as far as lighting— there are no lights and walking there safely becomes an issue. Their selection of fresh fruits and veggies is lacking. There’s just not a lot. If they are able to get there, the fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive. Even college students who have limited income can’t afford it,” she said.

Levine feels that one of the most important impacts of the community garden is that it will allow South Park residents to become self-sufficient.

“We’re educating the public to preserve the earth we live on, but also to preserve themselves and maintain their health. It’s important for children to learn how to take care of themselves and not have their health suffer, which makes them less independent with medical expenses in the long run,” said Levine.

Levine’s practice will sponsor a plot of the community garden. It is anticipated that many groups will be involved in the garden: LU, LIT, South Park Residents, businesses in South Park, the Southeast Texas Food Bank, Rotary, churches and Boy Scouts.

Besides improving community health physically, participation in the garden activities is a social opportunity offering fellowship, education, and opportunities for the disadvantaged. It is also an economic benefit by providing a sustainable local food system.