Johnson County’s WIC Community Garden First of Its Kind in Kansas

We all know that low-income families often don’t have access to healthy foods. We also know that poverty exists in suburbia.

Those facts led some Johnson County officials to, uh, plow new ground in Olathe.

On Friday, the county christened a community garden for families in WIC — the federal program designed to maintain the health of pregnant women, infants, and children under the age of 5.

WIC has been around since the early 1970s, which is about the same time that organizers formed the American Community Gardening Association.

But when you think about it, community gardening has been around for a lot longer than that in the United States. One researcher traced their roots back to WPA programs during the Great Depression and the Victory Gardens planted on the home front during World War II.

But local organizers think they are one of just a handful of programs around the country to establish a community garden for WIC participants.

The plot, measuring about a third to half an acre in size, sits right next to the county building that houses the WIC program. The garden has enough room for at least a dozen 60-foot beds.

What’s really interesting about the endeavor, however, is how the plan germinated in the halls of county government. You might say it was the result of cross-pollination.

That’s how Julie Coon, who works in an area overseeing the landfill, came to be the project coordinator.

By day, Coon is the county’s solid waste management specialist. But Coon is also a passionate grower who operates an urban farm business on the side.

As Coon told it, the general idea of a county-sponsored community garden had percolated among employees for a couple years.

Then her boss, the deputy director of the county’s department of health and environment, heard about a WIC community garden operating in Denver. That was sort of like the fertilizer for people like Coon and the WIC program manager.

They all finally sat down in December, thinking that, maybe they could get something going within the next year or so. But the director of the county’s access to healthy foods coalition had other ideas.

“There is grant funding,” she told the group. “We can apply for it. It’s due in two weeks.”

And that’s how the county secured the $4,475 grant to start the garden this spring. The grant came from a joint program of the Kansas Health Foundation and the K-State Research and Extension.

County workers did some initial site preparation last month.

The idea is to begin with four beds this year, starting with hearty summer crops like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. In the fall, they can grow things like beets, carrots, and broccoli.

WIC participants who put sweat equity into the garden will get first dibs on the harvest. But the county is also looking to community volunteers to help weed, water, and pick — even in triple digit temperatures.

Finding those hearty souls won’t be the only challenge. A voracious deer population could, quite literally, nip the program in the bud.

So, if you happen to be in the area of 119th Street and Sunset Drive in Olathe, don’t be surprised to see a scarecrow next to a county building.

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