UK students earn recognition for their work on Homegrown Kentucky, helping poorest
University of Kentucky students Benjamin Smith, Ben Norton, Patrick Johnson, Luke McAnally, and Adam Meredith were recently honored by former President Bill Clinton in Washington D.C. for their work on a project which is changing lives in one of Kentucky’s poorest counties. The honor was a fitting capstone on what had been a whirlwind of activity over the past few months.
Last November, the University of Kentucky selected seven students to form a “Commitment to Action Team,” as part of the Clinton Global Initiative-University (CGI U). The CGI U, built on the successful model of the Clinton Global Initiative which brings together world leaders to take action on global challenges, calls students to identify a pressing need in the world and to take tangible steps to help satisfy that need.
To find a pressing need, the team of students, which also included Aleksey Graboviy and Erin Jackson, had to look no further than their own backyard. The Appalachian Region of Kentucky has some of the highest rates of preventable disease in the nation, alongside a startlingly high rate of poverty. The region also consistently reports some of the worst indicative statistics for education levels in the United States.
As these bell-weather statistical areas tend to make or break the quality of living for individuals in any given locality, the group sought to address these concerns in particular. As a pilot project, they decided to focus their attention on Owsley County, consistently ranked one of the five poorest counties in the nation.
“Land really seems to be tied to the culture in Appalachia, and if we could connect things like physical activity and nutrition to the peoples’ love for their land, we felt that (our project) had a better chance of being embraced by the community.” Smith said.
Rooting their idea in the education system, the team decided to try to rally the Owsley County School System around a community agriculture project which would supply the school and community with fresh produce.
Smith and his team reasoned that with such a project, “over the long term (the community) may be able to ameliorate afflictions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, as well as the effects of existing in a food desert.” A food desert is a region in an industrialized nation without ready access to nutritious foods.
The team wanted to ensure that school students would not only be able to participate in the cultivation of the food, but that their teachers could also incorporate an experiential learning component in their classroom instruction.
Smith and the others also provided community members the opportunity to apply for plots of land on the farm and gave them access to seeds and the requisite materials for cultivation. In addition to the benefit of the produce and physical activity, the community members would also have the opportunity to sell their produce in the farmer’s market that had been created as a joint venture between the school and community. As such, community members would also be able to supplement their income and learn valuable agricultural and entrepreneurial skills.
Over the next few months the group founded a student organization called “Homegrown Kentucky” and made several trips to Owsley County to determine their project’s viability and the receptivity of the idea by the community. At the same time, Homegrown Kentucky worked to raise the necessary funds for the endeavor, building relationships with various community organizations such as Eastern Kentucky Pride, the Owsley County Conservation District, the UK Owsley County Extension Office, and the Owsley County School System.
Following a flurry of activity between December 2011 and March 2012 that saw the construction of a new greenhouse and the cultivation of starter plants, the Owsley County School System broke ground on the community garden on March 14th.
“All of the credit definitely goes to the community for everything this project has been able to accomplish. The resources were already there. It was just a matter of getting everybody in the same room and on the same page. It was truly an endeavor that Owsley County took ownership of, and in Homegrown Kentucky’s eyes, there could be no greater sign of its success than a high level of community support and ownership.”
Homegrown Kentucky will continue as a University of Kentucky student organization, offering experiential opportunities and internships to students wishing to participate in the organization as it continues to grow. Anyone wishing to learn more about the organization can visit the Homegrown Kentucky website.
Check out this video about the Owsley County Project