Highlights from the Network: HEAL NH

Melissa Groves


Terry Johnson is the Director of Healthy Eating Active Living New Hampshire (HEALnh), led by the Foundation for Healthy Communities. HEALnh is a statewide campaign that aims to reduce obesity and chronic disease by improving access to healthy foods and physical activity. Terry works in collaboration with state level partners and community coalitions to inspire, advance, and support policies, systems, and environmental changes to promote healthy people in healthy places throughout New Hampshire. Recently, Melissa Groves sat down with Terry to discuss one of HEAL’s recent success stories.

Berlin, NH HEAL Community Garden—Success in Collaboration

Terry shared with us the recent success of the Berlin HEAL coalition to repurpose a property on the corner of Mason and Granite Streets, demolishing a dilapidated apartment building to make room for a community garden and park. This project represents a bright light in a community that has experienced a significant economic downturn in the past few decades, which have had a profound impact on the city's population. Poverty and unemployment rates in Berlin are approximately double that of the state average, and the city is located in a county that is ranked last in the state in population health, morbidity, and mortality. Access to affordable, healthy food is poor, and, of the approximately 1,300 children enrolled in the public school system, over 55% receive free or reduced lunch.

This project was unique, because the HEAL partners located in Berlin, including representatives from recreation, housing, community planning, healthcare, schools, and others, were the ones who made the decision to start a community garden. According to Terry, the group did a fantastic job of engaging community residents...the organization’s members held the forums where the people in the community were—namely, the community dinners community center, schools, and senior centers. “A project works so much better when you have resident input, because they’re your target audience,” he said. “Without input from the community, you never really know if your work is going to have an impact. But with it, you have a better understanding of what will work before you even start implementation, and the residents take more pride and ownership in the project.”

What the residents wanted, in Berlin’s case, was a community garden. Angela Martin-Giroux, Berlin's Administrator of Welfare and Health Officer, and lead HEAL partner, said, “Through Berlin HEAL’s community meetings, residents told us they wanted community garden space closer to the downtown. With the help of city-wide partners and community members, we are able to create that space!” The group allocated a piece of land for the project within a low-income neightborhood that is in the process of being completely revitalized. HEAL was able to acquire funding from an existing Neighborhood Stabilization Project grant from HUD—an example of matching existing funds with a designated project. Additional funding from local sources as well as from a Harvard Pilgrim Healthy Food Fund Grant have enabled the project to continue to thrive and grow to more neighborhoods in Berlin.

A Community Garden Designed with the Needs of the Community in Mind

The initial garden at Friendship Park was built with 10 raised beds, all of which are currently in use. Two of the beds have ADA-compliant transfer benches for gardeners in wheelchairs to use. The gardens are mostly being used by residents of the immediate neighborhood. In addition, two of the plots are being used by Community Service Center, an organization that assists developmentally disabled adults. Another bed is being used for youth and family educational activities that are organized by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).

A Harvard Pilgrim Healthy Food Fund Grant received last summer (2015) enabled the coalition to hire a summer gardener, Elizabeth Ruediger, who worked with the playground children at three additional sites, establishing gardens, teaching them proper gardening methods, and sharing the produce with the kids and their families. The grant also allowed for the purchase of equipment cabins and gardening tools. There are now four sites currently being used for community gardens in Berlin:

1. Friendship Park—the “flagship” playground/garden funded by HEALnh.

2. Brookside Park—in a 130-unit low-income housing development located on private property. Angela Martin-Giroux and the City of Berlin collaborated with the owners to offer them the 18-plot garden as well as educational programs. The USDA summer feeding program had three beds located here last year, and the rest were reserved for tenants.

3. Community Park—garden and USDA feeding site.

4. Brown School—garden and USDA feeding site.

The gardens have been an overwhelming success with the residents. They appreciate that there is a master gardener on site to help teach gardening skills, work with the kids, and share the produce. According to Beth Gustafson Wheeler, Director of Community Health, Foundation for Healthy Communities/HEALnh, “These families now have better access to fresh vegetables, and the kids were always around wanting to help water, weed, and take vegetables home!”


A Model for Long-Term Viability

Terry acknowledges that there were some challenges in getting this project up and running. In an area with such limited resources, he says, “People and organizations are stretched thin, making it difficult for them to dedicate the time, energy and necessary resources to plan, implement, and sustain such a project.” With that in mind, the initial scope of the project was not as expansive as HEAL had hoped, but much progress has been made as more people have come forward to support the work and take leadership roles.

Terry also acknowledged the importance of tapping into the right people to get the job done. Being involved in HEAL has given him a better understanding that there are immense challenges around not only accessing healthy, affordable food, but also transportation, education, and housing challenges, which can all impact people’s abilities to live healthy lives and have a healthy quality of life. While HEAL is primarily a public health initiative, he says, “We have to engage with other sectors to succeed. Unless we have food systems experts consulting with us, it’s a longer road to improving food access. Making sure that you have all the right people at the table in terms of the partnership is crucial to success.” One of the reasons that HEAL is involved with the NH Food Alliance is because of that expertise and the breadth of the network. He concludes, “That’s why it’s important that viability is at the center...because, if we don’t get that right, it will be hard to improve access to healthy food for all.”

The goal is for the Berlin HEAL community garden project to be an inspiration and model to move similar projects forward throughout the city. There are ongoing efforts to increase access to active living, with open spaces and playgrounds. Long-term plans include implementing a complete streets approach for the city, making it more easily walkable to schools and markets, and making streets safer for all users of the roads. The WREN Farmers’ Market is one example of another project that is showing success in the city, with SNAP acceptance and Market Match and a teaching garden available at the market. According to Beth Gustafson Wheeler, the farmers’ market is valuable to Berlin not only for its economic development, but also for its community development. She says, “It is helping create a sense of place for Berlin residents.”

Terry’s hope is that the Berlin Community Gardens project can “serve as a launching pad to further improve access to affordable, healthy food options, build community pride, and contribute to addressing the significant health, social, economic, and environmental disparities that exist within the city. While this will require an ongoing collective effort by city leaders, organizations, and residents, they are well on their way.”