Some of her neighbors were hungry, and Pam Roberts had an idea about how to help them. But it was clear that she had to earn their trust before she and her husband, Mike, could provide neighbors with fresh produce.
Inspired by a conversation with a couple of young boys in the neighborhood on the east side of Newark, they envisioned a community garden where children and their families could plant seeds and harvest produce for their dinner tables.
They would help build a community at the same time they were teaching people to feed themselves. A few seeds in one neighborhood have grown into a citywide program of seven gardens that raise almost 7 tons of produce a year, a greenhouse and an aquaculture facility where school children raise fish that feed many families.
“One thing I learned when I lived there is that sometimes there’s two people working in the family, two adults are both working, and they still don’t have enough money for food,” Mrs. Roberts said.
The program they started, now known as Together We Grow, began in 2011 when Mrs. Roberts, now 65, and her husband decided to move from Mount Vernon to Newark. At the time, their daughter was a pastor at Newark Church of the Nazarene and Mrs. Roberts was teaching a Bible study class. She discovered that a house the church owned was empty and pitched an idea to the church staff: “What do you think about Mike and I moving into the house and being the groundskeepers?” The answer was yes.
Soon after they moved into the blue house, where they lived for eight years, they learned about the effects of poverty in the neighborhood. The garden was part of her plan early on.
It took about a year until folks in the neighborhood around Eastern Avenue began trusting Mrs. Roberts. “When we lived over on the east side, we got money together for school clothes for the kids every year in the neighborhood,” she said. “We probably clothed about 25-30 kids every summer for about five years.”
There were two boys, 10 and 11, who lived in the neighborhood. They had two other brothers who were in prison, said Mrs. Roberts, who had gotten to know them and worked with them closely in the gardens.
“We painted everything we could paint. He worked in the gardens and every kid in the neighborhood was over there painting our fence with us like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer,” Mrs. Roberts said. “One day, it was him and me on my front porch painting, and the house belonged to the church, so it was still part of the community service.”
As they chatted while they painted, Roberts realized that some children in the neighborhood needed positive role models as much as they needed food.
He said, as she remembered it, ‘‘Miss Pam, how come you and Mr. Mike don’t hit each other?”
It was a heartbreaking moment of stark reality.
On another occasion, she was talking with the other little boy, who was getting into trouble. She said to him, “If you end up in prison, you’ll break your mama’s heart.”
“At least I’ll get three meals a day,” he replied to her dismay.
Those two conversations launched Together We Grow. She realized the great need for fresh, easily accessible food and mentorship – and how poverty can damage and community.
There were several challenges in creating that first garden, which resulted in creative solutions. For example, there was no running water on the site to water plants, and it would cost about $3,000 to get a water tap installed – something they couldn’t afford. So they found another way. Black totes near the side of a garage next to the garden are attached to the gutters, and one rainfall would fill them up, so that gardeners could use that water on their plants.
At Eastern Avenue, people can rent garden beds for $10 for a 4-by-10-foot plot, giving them a sense of ownership. Eastern Avenue also is one of the four gardens to have a U-pick program in which people can stop by and pick their own fresh food for free.
Last year, Together We Grow gave away 13,000 pounds of free food. “We don’t make any money on these gardens. We just give food away for free,” Roberts said. “And that’s how I get a lot of grants, actually. The funders know that we’re not making money off of the food grown.”
Granville residents Shawn and Laura King are Together We Grow’s largest donor every year, and it receives grant funding from the United Way of Licking County, among other local funders. This year’s grant from the United Way is for $23,000.
“The quality of these fruits and vegetables exceeds what is in the grocery store,” said Martie Bruce, a U-pick participant. “The taste and nutritional value is superb. I highly value access to the U-pick gardens providing me with produce I can pick fresh from the vine with my own two hands. My family, friends, and I want to thank all responsible for providing this service.”
Roberts recently retired after ten years of service, making way for Vanessa Cross, 35, the new executive director of Together We Grow.
“It’s gotten so big that it’s just a lot of work, but it is very rewarding work,” Mrs. Roberts said. “After a serious fall in 2018, gardening just became more taxing.”
“I think my favorite thing about having worked at Together We Grow is that we got to give away free food and people really appreciate it,” she said. “I had a lady last summer who came and she was having some major financial problems. She was on Social Security, and when she got Medicare, it tanked her so low that she could hardly afford food. What she was getting in our community gardens each week was feeding her.”
Cross started working for Together We Grow in April of 2020, right after COVID hit. She now manages the overall planning and execution of the three major programs, Preschool Children’s Garden, Power of Plants, and Here We Grow Gardens, watches the budget, and works with the board of directors to ensure that each program and project follows the mission of the organization. Cross said there’s talk of coordinating with the Licking County Aging Program (LCAP).
“A couple of times over the last few years, we have had the opportunity to ‘interview’ or get testimonials from participants and gardeners to submit with our grant applications,” Cross said. “We have heard so many stories of people who depend on the produce that they get from Together we Grow gardens and how volunteers are changed by the work they do with us. The benefit that Together We Grow offers to the community is becoming more and more well known throughout the community members and we continue to try to raise awareness so we can do more.”
Since its inception in 2011, Together We Grow’s mission has been to provide food, education, training and work opportunities for the residents of Licking County and to improve the quality of life for those in need. Together We Grow currently operates six community gardens (Curtis Street, Eastern Avenue, Everett Park, Sixth Street, Western Avenue, and Utica), Heritage Greenhouse, which grows all year long and hosts programs, seven school gardens, four U-pick market locations, and a wooded 13-acre Fruit and Forest Farm for school field trips. In 2021, over 13,000 pounds of produce was donated from the gardens, and over 3,500 people were reached through programs in Licking County.
Community programs consist of 1) Preschool Children’s Garden: fun and interactive programs during the summer for 2-5 years old at the sixth street garden 2) Power of Plants: a school-centered program promoting the discovery of new vegetables and a chance to practice hands on planting and harvesting. Together We Grow currently has gardens at all seven Newark City School elementary buildings 3) Here We Grow Gardens: a hands-on garden program for adults with developmental disabilities. This program teaches gardening skills, promotes integration in the community, and improves employment opportunities. The main focus is cultivating the abilities of each participant.
Every summer, 25 preschoolers gather at the Sixth Street garden to learn about growing and harvesting their own food. “There’s little baby picnic tables and there’s baby tools. Little gloves and little aprons. They come and they learn about a new fruit or vegetable every week and then they get to do an activity around it. They do garden yoga. It’s just the cutest thing,” Roberts said. “We want to start them really young because then once they get into kindergarten, usually during summertime, we have kindergarten camp at all the elementaries, and then we go in and we introduce them to the gardens. We go in and plant a garden with every school in the beginning of fall.”
Together We Grow worked with the seven schools to plant sweet potato slips, which eventually grow vines and loads of sweet potatoes underground. About 100 pounds of sweet potatoes were grown at every school.
In 2017, the Heritage Middle School Greenhouse was built with the help of $70,000 in grants. The greenhouse is a 30-by-60-foot tunnel where food is grown year-round. Right next to the greenhouse sits Heritage Middle School, home to one of the seven school gardens where The Power of Plants program is taught. Soon after opening the greenhouse, the Here We Grow Gardens program was started for adults with developmental disabilities.
Kids work at the greenhouse where they have an opportunity to watch the 200-day growth process of a luffa. “So the little kids in kindergarten and first grade learn about the cycle of the luffa. The second and third graders will be planting them in their classrooms. The fourth graders will be peeling them for us. And every fifth grader will get to make a bar of their own soap to take home,” Mrs. Roberts said.
Her work with Together We Grow fulfilled a goal she had after their daughter Lisa died in a car crash. Mrs. Roberts took the pain of that loss at age 44 and channeled it into going back to school at Mount Vernon Nazarene University for a degree in social work and business. She graduated at age 50, the valedictorian of her class.
Pam and Mike Roberts will have more time together and with their children and grandchildren now that Pam has retired from Together We Grow. They got married when she was 17 and he was 19, and they had four children. Their oldest daughter, Jennifer, has three kids. Jennifer’s oldest son has two children and lives in China. Mike and Pam’s son, Adam, has eight kids. Their youngest daughter, Brittany, has three kids. “So we have four kids, 15 grandkids, and two great grandkids. It’s what happens in 47 years of marriage,” Mrs. Roberts said.
But she’s not leaving Together We Grow entirely. She said she will still write grant proposals and do fundraising 10 hours a week and helping wherever needed.
Zoe Meyer writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation.