FORT SMITH, Ark. ‑ The light in Charolette Tidwell’s eyes is perhaps never brighter than when she has her hands on the shoulders of a child. On Friday, that child was River, who joined Tidwell near the podium as she thanked Seeds of Change and its parent company Mars Food North America for a $20,000 grant to the Antioch Discovery Garden.
Tidwell and volunteers began working in February to revive the garden, which had been fallow for about 2 ½ years. Located at the corner of Eighth and L streets in north Fort Smith, the garden is close to three public schools where 95 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The ambitious goals of those working on the garden include educating children about healthful food, improving the wellness of those who work in and get food from the garden and providing a venue where many groups can work together to address food insecurity.
Some food grown in the Antioch garden will go to Tidwell’s Antioch Consolidated Association for Food and Family, through which she delivers up to 500,000 free meals each year in Fort Smith.
Volunteers from numerous groups, including Mercy Fort Smith, have worked hundreds of hours hauling compost, tilling soil, building raised beds, weeding and sowing seeds and plants to restore the garden to vibrancy. Among foods being raised there are potatoes, corn, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, onions and bell peppers. More is being planted all the time as the garden expands.
Seeds of Change chose Antioch Discovery Garden to receive one of 24 grants from a pool of 852 applicants nationally. Mercy Medical Librarian Pat Morris assisted Tidwell with the grant, which was announced May 3. The money will be used to fund an irrigation system, education materials and incentives for parents to influence healthier food choices.
Arkansas Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin spoke Friday to congratulate Tidwell and praise the garden as a model that can and should be replicated around the state. He said good nutrition is key to preventing illness and disease and that he’s among those trying to eat better, joking that he is “trying to learn to love arugula.”
“There are so many great lessons here and what you’re doing will impact exponentially so many people. You’re giving communities the opportunity to literally and figuratively put a stake in that garden, because they’re not just coming to you for those delicious cucumbers … they’re growing them, too. They’re participating, and that’s important. Those are life lessons,” he said.
Martin Schreiber, vice president of mission for Mercy Fort Smith, promised Tidwell continued support for the garden at Friday’s celebration at the Elm Grove Community Center in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
“It’s very important that we make a commitment to these children and say that no child should go to bed hungry in our city -- because we know that is possibly taking place. With this initiative and with this help, we commit to you, Charolette, and we commit as a community to no more hunger.”
Tidwell referred to River in talking about how the grant will help improve the garden, which helps feed people. But more importantly, it helps children understand the meaning of community.
“I want to give River the understanding of how we care for one another,” she said.
Among other guests at Friday’s celebration were Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, Fort Smith Councilman Andre Good, Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tim Allen and Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development for River Valley Regional Food Bank. Mars representatives at the event included Caitlyn Combs, Russ Hayes and LynneAnn Lawson.
The Seeds of Change Grant Program has supported more than 60 organizations and donated nearly $1 million during the last three years. In 2016, the organization will give nearly $300,000 to 12 schools and 12 community organizations.
Combs said Mars representatives were excited to hear that one of their own community programs was chosen. Mars operates the Mars Pet Care plant in Fort Smith
“Antioch Discovery Garden’s passion for sustainable, organic gardening and their devotion to bettering their community one seed at a time contributed to them receiving one of our $20,000 grants. We are truly honored to be here today celebrating their amazing achievements,” she said.
Mercy, named one of the top five large U.S. health systems in 2017 by Truven, an IBM Watson Health company, serves millions annually. Mercy includes 44 acute care and specialty (heart, children’s, orthopedic and rehab) hospitals, more than 700 physician practices and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.