A Parent’s Perspective

By Kristin Frazier

I grew up with a large garden.  My parents had both been raised on farms, and so for us it was as natural as could be to grow our own food.  Summers during my childhood were spent digging in the dirt, shelling peas, snapping beans, and picking tomatoes – first in that backyard garden, and then on the farm we moved to when I was in middle school.  It was a wonderful way to grow up, and some of my strongest memories are centered around the food that we grew.

My own children don’t have a garden of their own (we have lots of trees, and no sunlight), but – thanks to my parents – they’ve also grown up playing in the dirt.  When we visit the farm, everyone is expected to work.  Oftentimes we’ve barely had a chance to unload our suitcases before we head to the garden to see what’s growing or harvest veggies for dinner.  The reward for a weekend of helping Grandma and Grampa is a carload of produce to take home for ourselves, which is always appreciated.

Perhaps I was naïve, I always assumed that most people understood where their food came from.

Then my girls went to school, and I found out just how wrong I was.

I spent a large amount of time volunteering in our elementary school.  This enabled me to build great relationships with our teachers, and it also gave me a front-row seat to the goings on in the classroom.  Over time it became apparent that my own family’s diet was anything but the norm.

Here’s some of what I noticed:

  1. School lunches offer a lot more variety than they did when I was a kid, but students don’t always make the best choices when putting things on their plates.
  2. Both of my children were teased for bringing in lunchboxes full of fresh foods.
  3. Our schools are drenched in sugar – often it’s used for either individual or classroom rewards.
  4. The healthy foods that teachers asked us to provide for class parties were passed over by the children for the many, many sugary treats that were also brought in – often in quantities considerably higher than those requested.
  5. Parent lunches and field trips always consisted of fast food and junk food.  (For many families, this is a treat for the occasion.)

I do not believe in labeling foods as either good or bad or in restricting foods unless there is a specific health concern such as a food allergy.  What I do believe is that kids don’t get enough credit when it comes to food.  So often we believe that we must give them ‘kid friendly’ foods because they don’t like ‘healthy’ choices like fresh veggies.  Unfortunately, it becomes a cycle – we don’t offer them fruits and veggies…so they don’t like fruits and veggies…so we don’t offer them fruits and veggies – and that contributes to many of the things I noticed in our school.

So how do we change this?  There are lots of great ideas out there, but I think we should start by teaching children about where their food comes from…. which brings me back to what I learned when I began helping in our school.

I was really shocked the first time I asked a child where her food came from because she answered me by saying, “the store.”  Upon further questioning, it was clear that she didn’t understand that her apple had grown in a tree.  If you’ve spent time with children, you’ll know – as I discovered – that this is common.

The good news is that this is something we can fix.  The even better news is that if you take a child out into a garden and let them get their hands dirty – if you show them where their food comes from and involve them in growing it – they get excited about trying vegetables!  I’ve seen it in my own children – and I’ve seen it in many others.

One of the things that drew me to CCUA was the educational work that we do with children.  During my first week on staff, I accompanied our PLANTS program staff to one of our local elementary schools for a lesson in making salad with greens they had grown in their tower garden.  The kids were clearly excited, and knew it would be a special day.  We led them through a discussion of how plants grow before breaking them into teams to harvest the greens, wash them, spin the water out, tear them into pieces, and make a dressing.  Once the salad was put together, the students went back to their desks and so they could try the salad.  At first, we gave them small proportions – just enough to taste – but it wasn’t long before they started asking for seconds, thirds, even fourths!  (The teachers decided to share the salad with other classrooms, or they may have finished it.)  Even the most skeptical had enjoyed their salad.  The lesson was a success.

Learning about where food comes from, participating in growing food, and having the opportunity to try new things…. these are key in creating life-long healthy habits and a love of veggies!  It’s my dream that every child gets to experience the magic of a garden at least once in their life, and I believe CCUA’s PLANTS program is doing a wonderful job in making sure that happens.

Besides…there’s nothing quite so good as peas fresh off the vine!


AmeriCorps Great Stories, from PLANTS Programs

by Clint Brinkley

During their year of service, AmeriCorps members are required to write Great Stories about their experiences.  Clint’s stories give us a look at the variety of opportunities available through CCUA’s PLANTS programs.  

Great Picture 1


After enough teaching experience, and it really doesn’t take much, you’ll start to notice how students best learn things. Now, every student is different, but one thing I’ve noticed throughout my time as an educator is how well students pick things up when they literally pick things up. The opportunity to explore things with your hands provides great educational opportunities. This can range from digging in the soil to building models. Recently an example made this abundantly clear to me. While teaching a lesson on seed dispersal methods there were more blank stares than I’d like, but after showing real examples like “helicopters” and dandelions I could see the connections starting to be formed. What really cemented the lesson was when the students got to work in small groups to build their own working seed dispersal models. It’s those a-ha! moments that really help validate hands-on learning to me.

Great Picture 2.1

One of the most memorable moments I’ve had while serving this quarter was on Mayor’s Day of Recognition of Service. Partly because of the recognition, but mostly because it was the first big lesson of Spring. After an entire winter of planning and waiting, it was great to be back “in the field” teaching children about the plant life cycle, gardening, and how that relates to the food on our plates and the people in our community. The students had a great time meeting prominent civil servants in our community and getting their hands dirty in the garden bed. They were able to plant peas, lettuce, kale, spinach, and other vegetables, and are eagerly awaiting the day they’ll be able to harvest and eat them!

Great Story 3

Every year a few motivated students in the Columbia, MO area get to participate in Camp Salsa. The idea of the program is to teach valuable business skills to young adults by having them create a business plan for a salsa company, then actually make and sell the salsa. Part of the program takes place at the Urban Farm. Every Wednesday the young entrepreneurs come out and learn what it takes to grow the ingredients for the salsa by planting the crops themselves. It’s always a joy to work with this group because they’re all so interested and engaged with what we’re doing, whether that be learning about different pests on the farm or pulling weeds out of a row in preparation for planting something. One moment that made me particularly proud of them was the second time we planted a row with them. The first time we planted a row we set aside two hours to get it planted, and didn’t quite finish everything. The second time we set aside two hours again, and they finished every part of it in just under an hour! We had to come up with another activity for them on the spot because they were so fast. I’m looking forward to working with them for the remainder of the program, and especially trying their salsa!

Great Picture 4

Every year, Broadway Christian Church has their vacation bible school partner with a group or organization around Columbia, MO. Luckily for us, this year they chose the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture. For one week they came out for two and a half hours every morning to learn about food and do service work. While the lessons are always interactive and fun, the highlight of the experience for me was the Day of Service they did. On that day, we didn’t do any formal lessons, just worked. We started out with a brief discussion on what service means. Not according to the dictionary, according to them. After a few heartwarming responses, we got to work. And I’ve never seen elementary schoolers work that hard for that long! In two hours we were able to pull out almost every weed from our outdoor classroom, as well as lay new mulch over the entire thing! And not once did I hear any complaining about the heat or being bored; Only a few questions about weeds, playful banter, and the occasional kid trying to sneak a cherry tomato or blackberry!

Great Picture 2

AmeriCorps (2)

All in Balance

By Lori McCurdy

Gardening with children offers so much joy, but it is not without disappointments too.  I had the pleasure of working with Fun City Youth Academy this summer, visiting the garden with students every day for eight weeks. We learned so much about soil and compost, seeds and transplants, weeding and watering, and how to give the garden our LOVE. I had planned to do a lesson on insects just as the plants were maturing. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I noticed that their pumpkin vines weren’t looking so good.

When I investigated closer, my hypothesis was proven correct. That week, the students got a lesson on insects all right, but it wasn’t the one I had originally planned. I introduced them to the nasty squash vine borers.  First we made observations about the yellowing leaves and contemplated what might be the cause.  They made the connections that sunlight and water might be factors some how.  Then I moved the leaves near the base of the plant to reveal the sawdust looking evidence that I know all too well. I explained that tiny eggs had been laid, and then hatched, and now the hungry larvae had began to feed on the vine. With my pocketknife, I demonstrated how to “do a little surgery” on the plant to remove the culprits. They were fascinated by what I pulled out of the plant, and wanted to study the larvae. It was the perfect time to then talk about life cycles, and this larvae was just a baby moth! Then we covered the plant’s “surgery site” with compost and went looking for more evidence of insects in the garden. It was as if these kids were on a treasure hunt!  Someone exclaimed, “I found some,” and everyone gathered around to see, until someone else shouted out “look at THESE bugs!” We also discovered the tiny eggs of the squash bug, and then noticed a recent hatch with squash bugs of varying sizes and development.  It was a perfect example of how an insect can look different during the varying stages of life!

As the kids ran around looking for insects, a tiny watermelon was discovered!  And then we spotted cucumbers too!  Although the day had started with a hard lesson, that sometimes plants may not survive despite the care given, it ended with a delightful surprise.  Their plants had begun fruiting!!  It seemed to lift any sadness about the possible loss of pumpkins.

When my time with Fun City was nearing and end, we celebrated our garden experiences by enjoying some watermelon.  (Although it wasn’t their little watermelon that was now just the size of a tomato).  I overheard one of the young gardeners reflect, “Remember when our watermelon was just a baby?”


Welcome To Plants

By Lori McCurdy

CCUA’s PLANTS Program (Placing Learners, Agriculture, and Nature Together Sustainably) engages learners of all ages in hands-on experiences that emphasize the connection between food, health, and the environment.  PLANTS Program experiences take many forms and engage all ages in hands-on learning; developing a deeper understanding of the social, cultural, environmental, and economic impact of food on communities.  We hope to empower and inspire learners to take skills acquired through the PLANTS Program and implement them in their homes, schools, or workplaces. 

Thousands of children have visited the Urban Farm since I was first blessed with my job here.  Some leave a lasting impression, and the girl pictured here is one of those.  

Located just a block away from the Farm is the Center for Gifted Education, also known as EEE. Students who participate in EEE are bused to the center from their home school for special classes, and then bused back.

CCUA partnered with a class there to do a study of natives in a garden ecosystem.  The kids visited the Farm multiple times, and I went to them to help plant their garden at the school as well.

On this particular day, we had planted at the Farm. However, this young gardener hadn’t gotten dirty. As the students were getting ready to walk back to EEE, she ran over to the soil we had been investigating and proceeded to rub some on herself.  As she did this, she proclaimed that she wanted people back at her home school to ask what she had been up to!   She proudly held her head high as she marched off to tell her story.  

I often say “If you have dirt on you, there’s a story to tell.” And now I can’t say that without thinking of her!



Camp Salsa Shark Tank

By Billy Polansky

In June, Sarah Hughes, the Camp Salsa Program Director contacted me and asked if I wanted to be on a panel to hear groups of high school students pitch business plans for new brands of salsa. I would decide whether or not the groups should get microloans to startup their summer salsa enterprises. I was excited to hear the pitches and to be a shark in the shark tank.

Wild ideas are sometimes just that….but sometimes the wildness is what makes them great. Four years ago Jan Swaney told me about a project in Cleveland where kids grow a garden, then make and sell salsa using the veggies. At the time, I was sure this was a wild idea, but the more I thought about it, researched similar projects across the country and spoke with potential partners, the better it looked. In the Summer of 2014, the then-director of MU’s brand new Family Impact Center, Ashley Guillemette, and I put our heads together and pulled together a dynamic team of partners to create Camp Salsa. Today the project is led by the MU Family Impact Center with support from Columbia Public Schools, the City of Columbia’s CARE Program, the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture, and numerous local businesses.

On pitch day, at the Family Impact Center, twelve students were split into three groups. Each team had been working to develop their distinct brand of salsa. The pitches were complete with powerpoint presentations, colorful photos, and matching outfits. One even included a short comedy routine! The presentations were compelling and their products good. Someone once told me: “There’s got to be sizzle, it draws people in, but if you don’t have a steak to back up that sizzle, then people don’t come back.” These kids have the sizzle and the steak.

I was blown away by the thought these young adults had put into their products. The team pitching Stripe Salsa was decked out in their finest Mizzou gear. Their product is a yellow corn and black bean salsa and their target audience is none other than Mizzou sports fans. The group representing Sunny Salsa was wearing cool sunglasses. Their salsa is made with cut up oranges, and their tagline, “the brightest dip at the party”, suits the citrus flavor and their demographic focus of college-age students. The Spitfire Salsa team tried lots of recipes and tested them on family members to come up with a “sweet and spicy” chunky – but not too chunky – salsa. It is sweet out of the gates with a habanero kick that sneaks up on you.

During their presentations there was the stage fright you expect from teenagers who lack public speaking experience. However, each group was surprisingly supportive of each other – encouraging their teammates through awkward transitions, stuttering, and lost thoughts. Their behavior pushed aside any stereotypes I had about “the selfish teenager”. Camp was only three weeks in and these complete strangers had come together in small groups, worked through their egos, to come up with some great ideas.

When asked about their largest hurdle, the response was overwhelmingly some version of “Agreeing on what type of salsa to make” or “Agreeing on our brand”. Each group explained how they identified the strengths of their members and divided up duties to leverage those strengths. Students from each team told me that compromise helped their group come up with good solutions. They had to give up their own ideas for a different and better idea. This was powerful stuff coming from a group of high schoolers.

Back when Camp Salsa was just a wild idea, we thought it would be good exposure for the students, showing them that Columbia is full of possibilities as an entrepreneur, a gardener, or a chef. Now it is clear that this program goes way beyond that, these kids were developing their problem-solving skills and learning patience, gardening skills and learning about seasonal fruits and veggies. Hearing the students talk about profit per pint, the importance of local food, and teamwork put a smile on my face, it makes me glad that we decided take a walk on the wild side.

Camp Salsa is an eight-week program for high school students who get experience growing food at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture’s Urban Farm, learning about business development from local entrepreneurs, and starting their own microenterprise. Students get course credit through Columbia Public Schools and are paid a wage through the City’s CARE program.

Real Life in Opportunity Gardens

By Trish Woolbright

2017 has been the busiest season for Opportunity Gardens since it was founded in 2011. We have had more applications, more 2nd and 3rd year gardeners, more gardeners moving and needing assistance to rebuild and continue, and more gardens which are expanding…. everything is bigger and better!  With the beautiful, sunny weather we have sometimes built two gardens per day while also maintaining mentoring and relationships with all our other gardeners, old and new. It’s been difficult to get a breath lately to even appreciate how much work it is. Time flies when you’re having fun though, and it is fun! It’s hard, fun, and rewarding.

(By the time of publication, we had helped 47 NEW gardeners while continuing to work with 50 second and third year gardeners. We expect a pretty good sized graduation group this year!)

We’ve been sharing Opportunity Gardens stories lately to connect you to the families you help with your support, and I want to take a moment to get a little bit real because gardening, food, and hunger are all very real issues. Life is hard, gardening is not a passive activity, and poverty and all related issues make life even more difficult…which makes it even more important to tell the stories. I won’t deny that it feels awkward to share personal trials and joys that have been confided to me over the dirt.  However, these are my friends now, and I have their permission to tell you a bit about them so that we can make sure the program continues. I hope you can all connect in meaningful, respectful and creative ways. Our culture and times can be isolating and we are helping to make our yards, neighborhoods, and tables a bit more welcoming and abundant together.

I want to tell you a bit about what gardening is like in OG, what a typical season/day might bring, and some of why we love and are excited by it. This program means everything to a lot of people. If your life allows you to be able to empower others with support in the form of donations or time or goods, I’m very thankful and so are the Opportunity Gardeners.  Your support means the world to us!  But you also may not be aware of the daily struggle and why it’s such a big achievement to grow radishes, greens, and other veggies…. why it means so much to be able to do something for yourself on your own. I hope I can share a bit of that with you.

Feeding one’s family can be tricky. Many struggle with “What the heck is this? And how do I make it?” Time, money, access, and transport all come into play and can be barriers. On top of that, there are cultural and nutritional needs, allergies, and a multitude of food related diseases. And, of course, don’t forget Taste! FOOD IS GOOD and we love to eat delicious and nutritious things. Growing food ourselves, cooking with friends and family and neighbors, and feeling nourished and healthy can be our community’s roots. We can grow healthy together if given the opportunity.

Not every family has the same needs, and every yard is unique. I can’t do a package deal and drop it off, or build it for someone and leave. I can’t just pass out plants at a booth and hope it helps. Simply giving people things or doing the work for them does NOT help people make change. You must build relationships. You take the time to teach at someone’s individual pace, and you set them up with what they need to be successful. Everyone is different, and what one person needs for success is not what someone else may need. So, we meet people where they are with what they have, and we custom design their garden and mentoring plan. We take the time needed over a 3-year period help them learn to grow food independently.

The gardeners of Opportunity Gardens are a diverse community who are excited to garden and who want to feed their family and kids better. They want to eat better, and they want to feel better. Our gardeners are working towards this goal while they are also working several jobs, going to school, and maintaining a house. Some are raising children who are ill or have a mental or physical handicap. Many of our gardeners have a physical disability, and we work with them to find creative solutions so that we can make their gardens accessible. Sometimes a garden provides mental and emotional therapy to people with addictions, PTSD, or other mental illnesses.  It can also be a great place to have some alone time or to spend time with family. We are incredibly fortunate to garden with many international families who have been immigrants for school or work or who are refugees. Our international families teach us wonderful gardening skills and culinary traditions from their homelands. Gardening with previously incarcerated people and with those who have incarcerated loved ones makes us aware… and grateful… and patient. Our gardeners work multiple jobs, have large and small families, and are savvy, thrifty, and creative problem solvers. Their time is short, so gardening needs to be time accessible too. It can’t be too big or too complicated, and we must remember that everyone learns at a different pace and in a different way. We help them learn to garden through text messages, email, phone calls, in person visits, hands-on mentoring, our growing guide, Facebook, cook books, workshops, potlucks, and so much more. Our Garden Ambassadors and volunteers help us take the program a step farther.

Gardening isn’t easy, and we’re proud of our gardeners – who have found so much success in the face of hardship.  On top of whatever life has thrown their way, they face some of the worst soil conditions imaginable, weird placement in shady yards, burst water taps, and broken hoses. Sometimes you find glass in the soil… always… every day…. Glass. But still they persist, and they are rewarded with vegetables.  Sometimes my 3rd year gardeners, grow so much that they have to find ways to share it with their friends, families, and coworkers.  It’s a good thing we also teach food preservation!

Through all the health problems, the mental anguish, the people telling you that they can’t, we mentor. We get the appointments made and we work with our gardeners to teach them how to grow and cook their own food.

I want to make Opportunity Gardens available to absolutely as many people as I can. Our volunteers, donors, board, and staff have always fully supported this program, and the gardeners are all in and are dedicated to learning. It’s a successful program that is popular among gardeners. The effort behind it is just so amazing. Our goal this year is lofty, and we’ve faced some interesting challenges along the way. I’m tapping out my soil contacts and have had to switch lumber situations.  I’m using a tractor, a load handler, and our biggest truck to haul way more organic matter for more gardens than ever before. We have been pushing hard this year, to be honest, and because of that we may reach our goals. The best part is that we will get a whole lot of people growing a whole lot of food, and along the way they will be eating and sharing and experiencing a whole lot of interesting things while changing their lives and our community for the better.

When we sit down and take stock, looking through the notes and putting the data together, it shows that Opportunity Gardens is working. We want our gardeners to say, “I got this!” “I can feed my family now” “we garden together” “we have abundance”, and they do.  This is why we make the huge efforts to get the plants in the ground everywhere.

Every single time I put in a garden I have a neighbor come over to ask if they can have one too.

Every single time we have a successful gardener, they want to give back.


Because people in hard times know that it is important to help.

Because someone helped them.

Your help makes this possible. The ripple effects are huge. Your dollars and time and materials mean SO much to our gardeners. Thank you.

I hope you really understand the enormous meaning behind every square foot of the over 25,000 square feet of garden space we have created in Columbia through Opportunity Gardens. We don’t just give hope. Hope gives a person no agency for change. We give Opportunities. And that is where changes lives. Your help makes that possible.

Persistence and Patience

By Trish Woolbright and Kristin Frazier

OG From trish

I often wear a necklace stamped with the words “persistence and patience.” It’s a quiet reminder of two of the qualities I’ve found most necessary to succeed with anything in life.  Persistence, because sometimes you just have to keep moving forward, no matter what….and patience, because sometimes it just takes time – time and a lot of hard work.

Gardening is most certainly an activity that requires both persistence and patience – especially for new gardeners.  There is so much to learn, and there are so many things (like the weather) which are out of your control.  We all start with the best of intentions, but we are only rewarded with a bountiful garden if we are willing to do what it takes.

Tanya wanted to be healthier, and she thought that gardening would be a great way to make positive changes in her life.  As a bonus, gardening was something she could do with her child.  Tanya contacted CCUA and set up an appointment with Opportunity Gardens Manager Trish Woolbright so that she could begin her gardening adventure.

Soon after, Trish met Tanya at her home to evaluate her yard so that the two could start planning Tanya’s garden.  Right away, though, Trish spotted a problem.  Tanya’s yard was just too shady for a garden.  Fortunately, there was a community garden across the street.  Trish helped Tanya contact the community garden and arrange for her own plot.  Unfortunately, the plot Tanya was assigned was in what she and Trish termed “The Swamp Land.”  It was a rainy summer, and – as I’m sure you can imagine with a name like that – things did not go well.  Tanya was frustrated, her son was NOT inspired, and around August she gave up on the attempt.

Despite her early experiences, though, Tanya came back the next year even more determined to make it work.  This time she tried creating new bed styles and paid attention to what her neighbors were doing around her.  She learned, but every step was a swampy, difficult struggle.  Her garden didn’t flourish, and once again she lost heart.

Tanya’s garden may not have been successful during those first two years, but she was learning, and she was trying new things.  The best part was that Tanya was learning more and more about how to make vegetables into tasty dishes that her picky son would eat.  She was coming to food workshops, sharing cooking videos, looking up recipes, and more.  This new love of good food fueled her ambition…even if her gardening skills really weren’t quite there yet.

We had worried that she might give up, but Tanya contacted us once again in her third year, excited because she’d been given a much better plot in the community garden.  Tanya used all of the lessons she’d learned over the previous two years, increasing her garden size and planting lots of veggies, including cabbages.  Another 3rd year gardener and friend reached out to her and they teamed up to tend the garden.  The results were outstanding.  Tanya and her friend had an overwhelming abundance of food that year – so much so that she was able to take the extra to work to share with her friends in the break room.  That inspired her co-workers to apply for their own gardens, telling us how beautiful Tanya’s garden was!

Tanya is now in her first year of independent gardening, and has taken all that she learned in Opportunity Gardens to create the garden of her dreams.  She’s proud of her beautiful garden and of the delicious foods that she’s able to put on the table and share with her friends.  While we still swap recipes and tips, Tanya is able to obtain her own plants, soil, and straw, and is sharing the knowledge that she earned with other gardeners too.  Tanya’s persistence kept her going when others might have given up, and her patience was rewarded.

Gardening isn’t always easy the first time for everyone, and we are so proud of Tanya for sticking with it and learning how valuable it is. We know that we have empowered a gardener for life.

For more Opportunity Gardens Stories, be sure to check out the Beet archives.