Like many communities, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians has “suffered from the excesses of modern living,” writes Principal Chief Michell Hicks in an opinion editorial for The News & Observer earlier this spring. Hicks writes that the Cherokee are working to overcome poor eating habits, a lack of exercise, substance abuse and domestic violence. And while the tribe has addressed these issues by expanding health care and education programs, it also implemented a more grassroots solution — literally.
“In the end, it all came down to simply planting a garden,” Hicks writes.
This year, the tribe celebrated the 10th anniversary of a community garden kit program that Hicks launched in 2004, funded solely through the tribe’s general funds. With the help of the EBCI Cooperative Extension office, the tribe distributes kits containing vegetable seeds and an edible shrub designed to help families grow their own produce while encouraging physical activity and increasing access to healthy foods.
“Farming and agriculture have always been a part of our people, but I saw how we were getting away from that,” Hicks says in an interview with Xpress. “There were fewer gardens being planted, so I wanted to find a way to reenergize agriculture in our community.”
In the program’s first year, 350 kits were distributed, though extension agent Sarah McClellan-Welch says that number could not match the demand. The program expanded each year with 750 kits passed out in 2014. The extension office had to distribute the kits at four separate locations in order to combat long lines and wait time, she adds.
“The response has been huge,” she says. “It’s the most popular and well-received program that I’m involved with here.”
Overall the extension office credits the garden kits with an estimated 60 percent increase in gardening in the community, though McClellan-Welch believes the percentage is actually greater.
“Part of that is based on a survey we conduct each summer, and part of that is just based on driving around,” she explains. “Driving down the road, you’ll see more and more gardens where there hadn’t been gardens for years. And we’re seeing more elders gardening with their grandchildren.”
Hicks notes that getting children involved was always a goal of the program, which he saw as a way to teach kids the value of healthy eating and physical activity in a community that sees higher rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes than the general population in North Carolina and in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“[Gardening] gives the kids something to do that keeps them staying active, instead of being planted in front of a television or playing video games,” Hicks says.
The kits are also a way to preserve Cherokee agricultural heritage, as they contain seeds for crops such as corn and climbing beans that have historical significance to the Cherokee, Hicks says. McClellan-Welch adds that the kits also introduce “something new” by including seeds for vegetables that many people may not buy at the grocery store, like bok choy or spaghetti squash. The kits have also served as a way to distribute and preserve heirloom seeds — seeds from older cultivars, or varieties, that have been grown for several seasons and shared by gardeners.
“Many of these old-timey varieties were in danger of being lost,” McClellan-Welch says. “We’re always thinking about how we’re going to keep this sustainable through the years, and part of that has been including more and more of the heirloom seeds. Now, most of what is in the kits is crops the Cherokee would historically grow.”
Anyone interested in experiencing the bounty of the gardening kits firsthand can visit the Cherokee Indian Fair held in early October, McClellan-Welch says. The fair is an opportunity for the community to show off its harvest, she explains, as well as educate the public about the heirloom crops the garden kits are helping to preserve.
“It’s really a celebration of what the community has been growing all season,” she adds.
So has the garden kit program managed to address the tribe’s ills? McClellan-Welch says the extension office’s surveys are showing that families are more physically active and eating more fruits and vegetables if they have started a garden at home. Hicks adds that the program is fundamentally a way to encourage families to spend more time with each other, which he believes can bring about a significant improvement in many aspects of the community.
“I think it helps to get rid of idle time, and that alone can keep you from doing things that you shouldn’t be doing,” he says. “Overall, it’s a positive alternative for people and a way to bring families closer together.”
For more information on the garden kit program call 554-6712. The Cherokee Indian Fair runs Tuesday, Oct. 7, through Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds. For more information, visit visitcherokeenc.com.