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Planting the seeds: Garden by garden, preacher advocates for better food
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Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Cunningham-Walls and Donald Johnson pick brussels sprouts from one of their community gardens in Rock Island on Thursday, November 7, 2013. Dr. Cunningham-Walls has worked to establish several gardens in order to make fresh, chemical-free foods available to citizens in the city's west side.
ROCK ISLAND -- In warmer weather, when the gardens are in full bloom, there is a sea of greens, carrots and radishes. Bounties of corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, watermelon, beets, broccoli and cauliflower. Patches ripe with blackberries, raspberries and blueberries. Orchards wild with peaches, plums, cherries and apples.

They're all sprinkled around Rock Island like tiny, homegrown oases nestled amid bustling city streets.

"You name it, we have it," says the Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Cunningham-Walls, Rock Island, who started it all. "It just brings joy to your heart."

The founder and president of the Positive Empowerment Group, a community activism group in the city, says she saw a need for healthy fruits and vegetables -- grown without chemicals -- in Rock Island several years ago while working as a parent coordinator for the school system. As part of the job, she visited students' homes to meet with parents about programs that would help their families and raise their children's test scores, and she saw that many weren't getting the nutrition they needed, she says.

When she later began studying for her master's degree in community development at Iowa State University, she became interested in sustainability. One of her professors traveled to South America to help grow crops, and Rev. Cunningham-Walls says she thought, "We can do (that) right here."

And as part of her course work, that's exactly what she decided to do. Rev. Cunningham-Walls says she knew how to plant and tend a garden, but she didn't know whether she could grow one large enough to benefit the community. She began teaching classes about sustainability and simple things folks could do to be more green at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, and in 2006, she started gardening a plot of land across the street from Second Baptist Church.

Helpers would come and go, she says, but "I just kept on going. It was a need that needed to be met."

Working with the city, she began branching out and starting gardens on other lots, creating spaces for area residents to grow their own produce, and the original lot across the street from Second Baptist was moved to Franklin Field at 12th Avenue and 9th Street, Rock Island. "It's been an adventure," she says.

For the first few years of the endeavors, Rev. Cunningham-Walls says the Positive Empowerment Group gave away whatever produce it grew to area food pantries, women's shelters, and people in the communities in which it was grown. But teaching people how to grow food for themselves would help them to be self-sufficient, she says. "I've seen people coming out and wanting to garden," Rev. Cunningham-Walls says, so "we've taught families how to do it."

To do so, she gives gardeners some seeds or plants to grow and a plot in the garden, and shows them what to do, from readying the soil and planting to picking. If she continued to grow all of the food herself, "I'm not teaching anybody anything," she says. "I want to empower them to do for themselves."

She also firmly insists that the gardens remain chemical-free. She says she believes chemicals in our food system, from genetically modified produce to antibiotics in livestock, are "affecting our children and how they process things." People might not be able to eliminate all chemicals from their food, she says, but growing their own food, chemical-free, is a start.

Everything a person grows in the community garden is theirs to keep, Rev. Cunningham-Walls says. Growers also may choose to sell their produce at one of the group's farmers' markets at either Franklin Field or 4th Avenue and 9th Street.

In addition to generating interest in urban gardening with adults, Cunningham-Walls also works to get children involved. She says she has worked with kids from the Rock Island Academy elementary school, which "lets us come in and talk to the kids about gardening." Students from the school also have taken field trips to Franklin Field to learn more. "They were just so happy to be in the garden," she says.

To help spread the word about urban gardening and its possibilities, Rev. Cunningham-Walls says she enjoys motivating the older people in the community who know how to garden to help teach others how to do it, too. "We're losing a lot of knowledge with our older people," she says. "They're not teaching like they need to."

Rev. Cunningham-Walls says the Positive Empowerment Group plans to start teaching folks in the community how to freeze, can and cook the produce they grow, as well as offer recipes. The group also will apply for nonprofit status in hopes of getting grants to help fund the gardens and to purchase a tractor. Several seeds and plants in the gardens are donated, she says, but many are paid for out of the pockets of the Positive Empowerment Group.

Seeing the city's children and elderly eating better, she says, "that will keep me going."

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