Boston Fellow Marbury Jacobs made use of her passion for sustainable agriculture by starting the Garden Club at Springhouse Senior Living Community in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Members of the Garden Club also exchange recipes and prepare meals together, in addition to tending to the raised-bed vegetable and herb garden.
Jacobs, who is pursuing dual master’s degrees in Science in Agriculture, Food and the Environment and in Public Health at Tufts University, helped residents of the community build the garden as a tool for improving their health and nutrition. In an effort to reduce social isolation and increase general well-being, the club also encourages the sharing of gardening and cooking knowledge with the monthly meals.
Many of the residents of Springhouse Senior Living are still capable of living on their own. But Jacobs knew from previous experience working with older adults in Virginia that the ability to live independently doesn’t necessarily mean one is able to adequately meet all of their daily needs.
“Are they able to prepare their own, nutritious and culturally-appropriate meals?” asks Jacobs. “Do they have adequate vision, memory and organizational skills to keep track of their daily medications? Since many of them are isolated, are they still able to attend social events and see loved ones? Do they have the resources to participate in engaging and therapeutic activities? These are the needs that I wanted to address through the Garden Club at Springhouse Senior Living Community.”
Aside from the health benefits of eating more fresh veggies, increased physical activity, and greater exposure to vitamin D, Jacobs also knew participants would benefit mentally and socially from club activities.
“In a culturally rich and diverse community like Jamaica Plain, where many people come from agricultural backgrounds, the garden also served as a powerful placemaking tool, harnessing the community’s specific assets, knowledge and potential,” Jacobs says.
It wasn’t long before Jacobs and Springhouse staffers began noticing the positive effects of the Garden Club on the residents of the Assisted Living program and Allen House, a home for memory-impaired people, with whom Jacobs also worked. There were the two Allen House residents who recalled once-forgotten memories of tending family gardens as children after Jacobs hosted a discussion about World I- and II-era Victory Gardens. While discussing cooking during the holiday season, other residents remembered cherished family gatherings and shared favorite meals and recipes. Another resident who rarely participated in other Springhouse activities became so engaged in the club that she’d await Jacobs’s arrival with a book about flowers or trees in hand, ready to walk down to the garden. And just about every member enjoyed tending the plants and picking the tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, zucchini and eggplant, judging from how they proudly and gleefully brought the harvest to the kitchen, for use in the meals that would served to Springhouse residents later that day.
“I believe the Garden Club was a productive and unique way to engage residents of different backgrounds and with varying interests,” says Jacobs, “because we are all connected in one way or another by food.”
Jacobs has developed several strategies for keeping the club running beyond her Fellowship year. Having seen how the club engaged and benefitted so many residents and the wider Springhouse community, staff members are very interested in continuing the club. Jacobs is in the process of creating a manual to document the activities and discussions she hosted for the club, to ease the way for future facilitators. She also plans to host one or two spring crop-planning meetings with the residents and staff involved with the garden to help ensure planting in the spring for summer crops. Last, she is creating a video that will highlight the stories of several club participants, which will be screened at a Garden Club celebration in the spring.
Jacobs’ passion for sustainable agriculture stems from the three seasons she spent working on organic vegetable farms after earning her undergraduate degree in biology from University of Virginia. For two of the seasons, she worked to help launch MX Morningstar Farm, a start-up organic, diversified vegetable farm in Copake, NY.
“My first-hand experiences with the many challenges of modern farming and food production and distribution have made me very concerned about food security and community and public health,” Jacobs says. “From these formative experiences I bring a unique perspective to my graduate studies and my goal to help raise our society’s standards of health.”
As for her Fellowship experience, the vegetables weren’t the only things that grew. Jacobs did, too, in ways that surprised her.
“I was initially very eager to start the Garden Club activities as soon as possible, but I quickly became aware of the importance of taking time to get to know the community,” she says. “I really focused on getting to know each of the residents and staff I’d be interacting with during the Fellowship and dedicated time early on to become a familiar and trusted member of the Springhouse community. This primarily involved simply starting conversations and really listening to their responses, as well as telling them about myself and why I was there.
“Observing was another critical component of ingratiating myself into the Springhouse community,” Jacobs adds. “I shadowed multiple activities staff to really understand how to interact with the residents and personalize activities as much as possible to best suit their individual interests, skills and abilities.”