Interact for Health

Q&A: Seedleaf brings gardening to food deserts in Lexington

(Feb 2nd, 2016)

Ryan Koch is the director of Seedleaf, a nonprofit organization that promotes community gardens in Lexington, Ky. The organization aims to fill nutrition gaps in local food deserts and build healthy communities. Koch says that in addition to establishing healthy eating habits among participants, gardening has the added benefit of improving people's mental health by activating endorphins in the body. Koch spoke with Interact for Health to discuss the successes and lessons learned from his project.

Interact for Health: Could you explain more about Seedleaf and its goals?

Ryan Koch: Our mission is to nourish communities by growing and sharing food. We try to care for as many free, you-pick community gardens [as] we can each year, [working on] about 15 or 16. Most of our gardens are in food deserts on the north side of Lexington, Ky., so we always encourage neighbors to come harvest what they recognize, meet our volunteers and harvest [food] they'll be able to use at their home.

I'd love to see Seedleaf work hard on reskilling a community [and making it] healthier, especially on the north side of Lexington where we have the lowest per capita ... car ownership [and] it can be a mile or more to a store where you can get fresh produce. I think a community garden is one little effort that could be part of a bigger solution of healthier neighborhoods.

Interact for Health: What lessons have you learned from operating Seedleaf, and what positive results have you seen?

Koch: We have learned what not to grow. There are different things that just do well here, and when people realize you can cook kale just like you do collard [greens], then that's a pretty strong argument for expanding diets.

I've been realizing that community engagement is maybe the most challenging thing for a community garden organization. If I could cut and paste some of the best parts that Seedleaf has been doing, it might just be commit to a space and care for a neglected piece of land and watch what happens. That seems to be the recipe for success for a [nonprofit] that is largely volunteer-run. I would recommend cultivating a committed volunteer base. Every time we have a garden that has a champion, that garden just does better.

Interact for Health: What accomplishments of Seedleaf are you most proud of?

Koch: One thing I'm really proud of, we do a lot of composting. We're picking up at 35 restaurants and kitchens just doing their pre-consumer prep waste. In 2014, we picked up 51,000 gallons of waste and turned that into a fantastic soil. We work with a lawn company to get a lot of [leaf mulch] into and onto our garden beds where it really blesses the soil ... I think our gardens are really thriving because of [the composting effort].

Interact for Health: What about your work is most fulfilling?

Koch: The activity of gardening has been demonstrated just to help people. When you interact with compost, something is released that activates the endorphins in us. So there's something that feels really good and right about interacting with the soil, interacting with compost. I think individually those things are in play. But for a community to come see it itself, for a community to know that this is our space and we can harvest this and we know how to grow this, I think there's a lot of empowerment that goes on when people come to realize how healthy our soils are and what a fantastic and nutritious opportunity this can be. I like it for individual health but also for a community's health.