“I Grew to Love My Garden”

Nothing in a garden lives on its own. Plants grow only as they receive water, nutrients, and sunlight from their surroundings. At New Haven Farms, we pour a lot into making sure our gardens receive what they need to thrive. Indeed, you may have walked by one of our gardens this season and seen a woman dedicated enough to come water her plants on crutches.

Ruth Torres became involved with New Haven Farms in 2010. Her grandson Alex tested pre-diabetic and was referred to the Fair Haven Community Health Clinic’s Diabetes Prevention Program in connection with a small garden that would become New Haven Farms. No longer pre-diabetic, Alex has lost weight and no longer has high cholesterol or high blood pressure. He represents one of many participants who have seen significant health and lifestyle changes through involvement with New Haven Farms. Over 200 families have participated in the Farm-Based Wellness Program since 2012, with more than 50% of participants increasing their food security status and at least 50% reporting decreases in BMI and weight change between 2013-2015.  Because of our family-based model, Ruth also has more to share–how our participants are co-creating inspiring stories for healthier communities.

While Ruth was born in Puerto Rico and has lived the past 32 years in Connecticut, she’ll tell you she grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She had a few plants and flowers in her house but didn’t really learn to garden until she became a participant in New Haven Farms’ first year of the Farm-Based Wellness Program. This 16-week program brings medically-referred patients and their families together to receive healthy food access, cooking, nutrition, and gardening education–along with a supporting community–to cultivate lifestyle changes that improve health and reduce risks for diet-related chronic diseases.

Since that first season, Ruth has returned year after year as a volunteer. She is one of thirty FBWP graduates–former patients who have become food producers–who manage the new incubator community garden started in 2015. Ruth also serves on the Community Advisory Board, and she became an inaugural Community Health Ambassador this year. As she has become a regular presence at NHF events and activities, the garden has become an essential part of her life as well. “In the winter I can’t wait!” she says. “Hurry up until the garden opens!”

Ruth hopes to see her family transformed from within as New Haven Farms helped Alex and her change.

Ruth’s health problems once gave her a hard time walking. Now that she’s active, she can walk miles. She no longer needs to go to the doctor several times a month. She eats better and has learned to address many of her food allergies. NHF also helped her battle depression and loss in her family. Ruth feels independent, involved and active, and she’s thriving off it. Her face lights up when she talks about her plot at the incubator garden and her harvest last summer: “I got cucumbers all year! Eggplants, green peppers, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, spinach…I couldn’t believe it. I grew to love my garden.”

Health in Your Hands 2015Her family hasn’t gone unaffected either. Ruth has become notorious for sneaking fresh vegetables into food she cooks for her relatives–grinding up mushrooms and spinach into meatballs, making mashed potatoes with carrots. She constantly advocates for family and friends to be more active, eat better, and be more engaged with family and community. Ruth hopes to see her family transformed from within as New Haven Farms helped Alex and her change.

People, like plants, receive what they need from their surroundings. But those plants themselves supply the nutrients that will allow other plants to grow around them. In fact, the entire system of a garden (or a community) is simple and sustainable—a cycle of resources, all members giving and receiving.

“I always use myself as an example—I’m not telling you to do it, but getting involved has impacted me greatly.”

So don’t be fooled—Ruth will say she’s received a lot from New Haven Farms, but NHF has received much more from her partnership. She’ll be the first to greet you at the Farm-Based Wellness Program where she’s volunteered for years now–even on crutches! A natural community leader, she’s been telling everyone she knows about New Haven Farms since she started. Trained as a Community Health Ambassador, Ruth speaks, inside and out of her community, about how the program has impacted her own life, encouraging people to get involved and stay involved. (“Sometimes I think I get too enthusiastic about it,” she says, laughing. “Maybe people think I’m crazy!”) Volunteering has allowed her to connect with others, to share her own experience, and to make it accessible to others. “I always use myself as an example—I’m not telling you to do it, but getting involved has impacted me greatly.”

A steady source of support and encouragement, Ruth embodies what all of us at New Haven Farms, herself included, seek—communities and families and cities changed from within, people connecting more and more with their bodies, the land, and each other. Indeed, she has big dreams for New Haven Farms. While she has loved the opportunities within the programs to be social and get to know people, she longs to see NHF change her own community, Hamden, on the edge of Fair Haven. “I live here. I wish there was something here because this is my town, my community.”

Families and communities and gardens need more Ruths. She understands a groundbreaking idea—that “it’s the same thing with plants and with your kids. Things don’t grow if you don’t give them that TLC!”

Jamie Cooper is the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute Impact and Marketing Intern at New Haven Farms, where she collects stories about the people and programs growing our mission of health and community development through urban agriculture.

Support for the Community Health Ambassadors, a partnership between Fair Haven Community Health Center and New Haven Farms, came from the City of New Haven’s Health in Your Hands to reduce childhood obesity and Newman’s Own Foundation. Together with the New Haven Land Trust, New Haven Farms has also developed more pathways for long-term healthy food access through Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation’s Healthy Food Fund, which supports the Farm-Based Wellness Program, Incubator Garden, and Affordable Farm Stand at New Haven Farms.

To learn more or volunteer, visit our Ferry Street Farm site at 613 Ferry Street on Saturdays between 9am-noon.  For other inquiries about New Haven Farms, contact Executive Director, James Jenkins, at james@newhavenfarms.org.


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