Work underway at new Prosperity Gardens project in Beardsley Park

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With the nearest grocery store a 25-minute walk away, the Beardsley Park area is one of the food deserts of Champaign.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “neighborhoods that lack healthy food sources.” The USDA recognizes different ways of measuring access to healthy food for individuals and for neighborhoods, most of which through measuring the distance to a grocery store.

The USDA Food Access Research Atlas is an interactive map that presents a spatial overview of food access indicators for low-income households. The map identifies the Beardsley Park neighborhood and surrounding areas as low-income census tracts, where a significant number or share of residents is more than half a mile from the nearest grocery store. 

However, grocery shopping is about to get easier for the residents in the area, thanks to the Beardsley Park neighborhood garden. Last September, the city of Champaign acquired one acre in the Beardsley Park neighborhood to put the homeless to work and provide fresh produce for local residents. 

Plans are now underway for gardening to begin in 2021. Although the neighborhood garden doesn’t have gardening beds set up yet, but it has a walk-in cooler and a wash house for vegetables.

The delay on the gardening beds is mainly due to soil contamination. In 2015, a soil test confirmed the presence of benzopyrene, arsenic, lead and selenium contaminants, as a result of the above-ground storage of gasoline and electrical machinery previously located near the property. 

Andrew Quarnstrom, City of Champaign township supervisor, said the contamination does not pose a threat to working and gardening above the contaminated soil, and the new one-acre garden will be filled with mulch before garden beds are laid out.

Along with the Beardsley Park neighborhood garden, the city also purchased the Champaign police evidence building at 303 N. First St., along with two adjacent lots that were original gardening locations for Prosperity Gardens. 

Prosperity Gardens is a non-profit founded in 2010 that provided hands-on gardening education and produce low-income residents in the area. Now owned by Champaign, the township plans to offer fresh produce to residents and to partner with the CU@Work program to provide jobs for homeless individuals and panhandlers.

“We aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; we want to work with what’s already in place and help the community,” Quarnstrom said.

In the past, Prosperity Gardens struggled to find and maintain a strong labor pool because it was volunteer-based. The program, ran in coordination between the city and CU@Work, is hoping to provide jobs to homeless individuals by paying them with a meal and $10 an hour for beautification work, typically including litter abatement. 

“I believe we’ll have a strong, interested group of workers that want to work and can do it,” Quarnstrom said. 

Stephen Harper, the work coordinator at CU@Work, said individuals work four-hour shifts for two days a week. Harper has worked with over 65 people and has helped four individuals get housing. 

“Working gives these people a lot of dignity and pride,” Harper said.

Some participants of the CU@Work program have already begun working at the main location of Prosperity Gardens at 303 N. First St. by clearing out all of the overgrown plants.

“I think it’s gonna be great, gardening will take away the monogamy of picking up trash,” Harper said. “It gets old doing that over and over.”

Aside from getting paid for tending the garden, the workers will also get to take some of the fruits of their labor. 

Quarnstrom said gardening will begin in the spring at the 303 N. First St. location and will begin planting in Beardsley Park in 2021 at 713 N. Champaign St.

The Beardsley Park neighborhood garden is located towards the center of the neighborhood and is one block south of Beardsley Park. Its location will be accessible to residents by foot and is within a ten-minute walk from most residents’ homes. 

“Aside from providing an opportunity to make money, we plan to put the food back into the community,” Quarnstrom said. 

Despite Beardsley Park neighborhood’s lack of access to grocery stores, there is an existing community garden within a 12-minute walk located west of the neighborhood, across Neil Street. The garden is known as the Randolph Street Community Garden and is primarily overseen by Dawn Blackman. Blackman is the garden steward and is a reverend from Champaign Church of the Brethren. 

The Randolph Street Community Garden started as an urban planning graduate student’s project. Blackman said the garden helps families obtain fresh produce at a much cheaper price than nearby grocery stores or farmer’s markets.

“People will often be so surprised when I tell them that the spinach and lettuce are less (than) $1 for a pound,” Blackman said.

Aside from providing fresh produce, the Randolph Street Community Garden also brings all types of people from the community together, including children and seniors.

“The best thing that I see that the garden does for our community is that it brings people together… whether they’re gardening or not, whether they come for an event or a party, you get together to meet people from different parts of the community,” Blackman said. 

Despite the proposed new garden in Beardsley Park being so close to the Randolph Street Community Garden, Blackman believes that the two gardens will help different populations.

“There’s no harm in having more accessibility to fresh produce,” Blackman said.

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