Harvesting change: mother, daughter plant seeds to fill in gaps caused by food deserts

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INDIANAPOLIS — Joyce Randolph and her daughter, Vivian Muhammad, have been part of the Forest Manor neighborhood since the 1970s.

Over the years, they’ve seen plenty of people and businesses come and go, including major grocery stores.

“Our community is aging, and as we age, the ability to get our food has become more difficult,” Randolph said.

“All of our residents now either, if they don’t drive, then they got to depend on family and friends to come and get them and take them to the store,” she added. “I’ve seen our neighbors walk down the street, carrying what they can, which in most instances is just a small bag or two.”

The impact from lack of grocery stores, Randolph says, has also caused neighbors to do their shopping at local gas stations.

“People go to the filling station, they get chicken and fries and fish and that kind of stuff instead of being able to go to the grocery store and get their fresh vegetables and food and go home and cook it,” she said.

According to latest research from SAVI.org, 208,000 people live in food deserts in the city. Food deserts are considered urban areas, where it’s difficult to buy affordable or fresh food.

Muhammad says the lack of access to fresh options has also left a strain on people’s perception of healthy eating.

“We really have, in our community, developed a habit of going for the junk food. Why? Because it’s cheaper,” said Muhammad. “It’s addictive, I mean let’s face it, hot fries are good! So for all those reasons and more, we decided that we needed to kind of ramp up how [we] presented our fresh produce to our community.”

After buying a lot on Sherman Drive, in 2013, it was the beginning phases of planting the seeds of The Elephant Gardens. It’s an urban garden, led by Muhammad and Randolph, catered to growing, harvesting and selling fresh vegetables and herbs to the community.

The name, Elephant Gardens, is inspired by the animal’s traits including loyalty to its community, protectiveness of its youth and its herbivore lifestyle. All three traits, that Muhammad and Randolph say, are the backbone of their mission.

From onions, to peppers, tomatoes, parsley and all things in between, the mother and daughter team say their goal extends beyond a transaction. The goal is to also provide education, providing nutrients for both the body and mind.

“What’s an eggplant? I get that all of the time, or how do I cook this? What’s it good with? Same thing for squash and zucchini. I like zucchini bread, well you know you can sauté that!” said Muhammad. “So we are going to implement recipe cards, and things of that nature, so we can help people not just buy produce, but go home and prepare that into a nice meal.”

Along with recipe cards, Elephant Gardens also offers take-home plants and essentials, for all skill levels in gardening, to grow your own produce at home.

Last year, the garden introduced Buddy Buckets, which involves caring for companion plants like tomato basil, pepper parsley and others.

“We wanted to teach, right off the bat, that there are multiple methods to growing food,” said Muhammad. “You don’t have to have a big farm with 1600 acres, although it would be great! You also don’t have to have a lot of machinery. You can grow food. You can grow it in your backyard, a container or even in a box.”

Nearly 10 years since the journey started, Muhammad and Randolph say it hasn’t been easy, but the reward of helping neighbors, and others in need, is well worth it.

They encourage anyone, of any age, to come out and volunteer.

The Elephant Gardens is at 3348 N. Sherman Drive. That’s along with two other locations, including near its main headquarters and Lebanon, Indiana.

For contact information, or to view their hours, you can visit their website or Facebook page.

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