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Growing Our Future Through Urban Conservation Projects

Interest in urban farming within city limits continues to grow in popularity as producers seek to find sustainable food sources to feed growing populations.

To modernize the traditional approach to conservation planning on the rural landscape, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas announced this year the opportunity for Urban Conservation Grants.

“This new program was put together in an effort to address food deserts and educate urban citizens and youth on the benefits of locally grown fresh produce and greening of the urban landscape,” said Salvador Salinas, Texas State Conservationist for the NRCS.

Spearheaded by the agency’s State Outreach Coordinator Bertha Venegas, the grants had three components – a community garden, pollinator habitat and a high tunnel which is similar to a greenhouse in appearance. Applicants could put in for one, two or all three components of the grant.

“The Texas NRCS Urban Conservation Project is an effort to challenge community organizations, educational institutions and Indian tribes to establish community and school gardens across Texas,” Venegas said. “Addressing hunger with an urban garden can bring communities together and initiate other positive outcomes for people,” she added. “And pollinator habitat planned with urban gardens can provide an increase in harvest potential while providing food and habitat for declining insect communities in Texas.

In its inaugural year, the number of applications far exceeded expectations and the available $150,000 allotted for the grants. The state received a total of 49 applications for a total of $252,000. Applications were ranked and in the end 26 projects across the state were awarded with a total funding amount of $149,138.

Four of those projects are in north central Texas’s Dallas and Fort Worth area.

Located just south of I-30 in Dallas, the Girl Scouts of North Texas received a grant to plant a monarch butterfly pollinator garden at their Stem Center of Excellence to add to the already established Pond, Butterfly Pavilion and Garden. The Butterfly Pavilion will offer programming to align with pollinator gardens, butterfly habitats and related girl scouts badge work. The pavilion’s cover is built in the shape of butterfly wings to add even more visual presence to the pollinator garden. Seedbed preparation is underway with planting to begin this fall.

“We are just so excited to be able to provide this educational opportunity right here in the middle of Dallas,” said Girl Scouts of North Texas Project Coordinator Brenda Rozinsky. “There is a walking path all around the pollinator garden and I think it is going to be something people will utilize and enjoy for years and years to come.”

Camp Carter YMCA was the recipient of a grant for construction of a high tunnel, as well as planting a community and pollinator garden. Camp Carter offers a year-round program, used by YMCA campers, as well as churches, college groups, family reunions, and more. They will utilize the Urban Garden Project to develop monarch butterfly habitats, urban gardening to support migration and pollination, encourage plant growth and food distribution to communities in need, and enhance urban youth participation in environmental research.

“We are so excited NRCS is partnering with us to get this up and going,” said Malik Stewart, YMCA project director. “We grow a lot of food for our inner-city neighbors. And we have a chef we are talking to about growing specialty crops for her Cancer Cuisine that she creates as part of special diets for cancer patients. This is just a great opportunity for learning and is going to benefit so many people.”

Another grant was awarded to the Gleaning Network of Texas. The group plans to transform a 7.3 acre piece of urban property from a 1960s church landscape plan with a parking lot and open field into a vibrant, sustainable ecosystem that serves as home for pollinators, provides learning opportunities, and produces food for neighbors and the community at large. All growing practices will use organic methods. Farmers Assisting Returning Military (F.A.R.M.) organization is also going to be utilizing the urban farm to provide hands-on education to military veterans.

The Dallas County Hospital is another beneficiary of grant funds offered by NRCS. The hospital is excited to add a community garden, monarch butterfly pollinator garden, and seasonal high tunnel to their Parkland Pantry and Pollinator sanctuary at the Parkland owned-and-operated Southeast Dallas Health Center. The community garden and seasonal high tunnel will provide year-round access to sustainably grown produce in a low-income neighborhood in Dallas and act as a health and wellness, urban farming and natural resource conservation education tool for the local community. The butterfly garden will provide a community-maintained habitat for declining pollinator species and serve as a space for community engagement and education in natural resource conservation.

With the vast majority of Texans living in urban areas, this pilot NRCS Urban Conservation Project presents a unique opportunity for community-based agriculture. This project is aimed at empowering urban communities to use agriculture and conservation as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community as well as helping provide food and environmental benefits.

Growing Our Future With Urban Conservation Projects, Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist (2018, October)