Grow, Eat, Learn: Collinwood Friends Garden Brings Fresh Food to the Fore

Brittainy Quinn didn’t eat a lot of fresh veggies growing up. “My mom has always planted beautiful flower gardens and enjoys being active outside,” she says, “but growing up, it was always canned vegetables with dinner. It wasn’t until I moved out that I really started having fresh vegetables and an eventual interest in eating cleaner.”

Still, she couldn’t have imagined where her life’s path would take her: “I never thought back then that I’d be running a community garden!” says Quinn, 33. By day, she’s an arts educator at Cleveland School of the Arts, but for nearly a decade, she’s also been operating the Collinwood Friends Garden, which she co-founded in 2011 with friends.

While doing research for a Cleveland State class on community gardening, Quinn reached out to her local community development corporation to learn more–and was surprised to be invited to serve as a garden leader for a plot of vacant land on East 156th Street, in the Collinwood neighborhood where she lived.

“Even though I had no clue what I was doing, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’” she says. She reached out to two friends who also lived and worked in the area, and as the trio started brainstorming ideas for the space, Collinwood Friends Garden was born.

Their mission was to make the space pretty and usable, replete with free resources for anyone who wanted to use them. Each year, Collinwood Friends Garden receives free seeds and sprouts to share with their community via Summer Sprout, a community gardening program run by The Ohio State University Extension that provides soil testing, seeds, starter plants, educational outreach, and support to 157 participating gardens within the Cleveland city limits.

When it comes to additional supplies, Quinn and her fellow gardeners make it a point to buy local and small: flowers from Cavotta’s Garden Center, lumber from Lakeland Lumber, soil from Setser’s Yard Supply on Euclid Ave, and so on. “We do our best to keep our spending to the mom and pop places,” she explains.

The garden occupies four vacant lots where abandoned apartment complexes once stood, and its community gardeners represent a diverse group of neighbors–young, old, Black, white, high- and low-income, male and female–who might not otherwise find opportunity or cause to come together. And in recent years, its founders have expanded the garden’s mission to focus on education and job opportunities for local youth.

“I’m an art teacher, so that aspect is what happens naturally to me,” Quinn says. Most of the garden’s youth participants are her own students from Cleveland School of the Arts, some of whom live in the neighborhood while others commute from areas like Kinsman and Cleveland Heights. Their first garden project, back in 2013, involved learning about the importance of water conservation and studying the work of local rain barrel artist Linda Zolten Wood before ultimately coming together to paint three 55-gallon rain barrels that are still in use in the garden today.

Co-founder Kayla Palmisano, a professional pastry chef, also combines the professional with the personal as she folds culinary education into her work with the garden. Young gardeners learn the basics of growing their own food and maintaining a public space for the community – and they learn how to prepare what they grow. “Chef Kayla,” as she’s affectionately called, provides students with free culinary lessons, then serves up a healthy lunch for both the kids and their families.

“I think adding the culinary aspect really changed things,” Quinn says. “The kids are more excited about growing the vegetables when they know what to do with them.” Quinn has benefited this aspect of the garden, too. Since taking classes with Chef Kayla, she’s learned to better take control of her own health, motivating her to keep active and eat more healthfully.

Each year, student gardeners participate in Freshtoberbest, a youth cooking competition that brings in professional chefs to help students prepare delicious, creative dishes using ingredients grown in their own urban gardens. Last year, Collinwood Friends Garden’s participants placed in each category, winning first place overall.

Some of the young gardeners aspire to become professional chefs, while other participants have gone on to pursue different careers inspired by their work with the garden. As Quinn points out, “The garden provides education and opportunities both in visual art and culinary art – and it really sticks with the kids.”

One of her past students, who as a sixth grader, took part in the rain barrel project, now studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art and recently took part in the painting of the Black Lives Matter street mural in Cleveland. Another garden graduate is now majoring in environmental science and took on a leadership role at the garden this year.

“Watching the kids grow up and become young adults in the community is really rewarding,” Quinn says. “It gives me a lot of hope.”

And there’s never been a more critical time for hope: Like so many other businesses and community projects, the Collinwood Friends Garden has been forced to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, asking gardeners to follow CDC and state guidelines if they chose to continue visiting the garden. Rather than gathering in person, as usual, they’ve opted for online ordering for seeds and sprouts and have been making contactless deliveries.

While the garden has ceased in-person education with its students, Quinn and her fellow organizers continue to provide resources to teach youth about how to garden at home – including information about the WWI- and WWII-era trend of planting “victory gardens,” which have seen a resurgence in the age of coronavirus.

Recently, with the support of a Neighborhood Connections grant, Quinn and Palmisano delivered culinary kits, complete with recipes and how-to videos, to 13 students’ homes in the hopes of guiding them to successfully cook dinner for their families.

“It’s definitely different from anything we’ve done in the past, but it’s something,” Quinn says. “I’m just glad we’re able to keep this going.”

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 4:17 PM, 09.03.2020