O Grows — Group

Auburn University, Auburn, AL & Opelika, AL

Photograph of O Grows members.

O Grows representatives gather with their award. Pictured from left to right: Natalie Simpkins, Ashlee Duffy, Carey Andrzejewski, Susan Forbes, Sean Forbes, Barbara Patton, Eric Hogan, JB Harris, EFLT Department Head Sheri Downer, College of Education Dean Betty Lou Whitford.

O Grows promotes gardening and related programming to address the issues of food security and localized food systems, while providing fresh food for the Opelika, Alabama community. It began in 2012 as a solitary effort at one school to encourage outdoor education and was comprised of a school garden and weekly lessons with second graders. Since then O Grows has indeed grown, into a community-wide partnership, which at its heart is an effort to localize the food systems of Opelika. O Grows now includes gardens and experiential learning lessons for students at six schools, a community garden and greenhouse, and a farmers market. Plans are in place to break ground on a 4-acre farm in Opelika this year.

O Grows has evolved into a partnership among Opelika City Schools, Keep Opelika Beautiful, The Food Bank of East Alabama, and the Auburn University College of Education. This collaborative partnership targets all the facets of food security – availability, accessibility, utilization, and sustainability. The group’s long-term vision is the renewal of Alabama’s agricultural heritage to sustain its citizens with locally-grown food. K-12 students including paid student interns, community members, and volunteers are involved in planning, installing, and maintaining the gardens.

As an effort in localism, O Grows models an approach to civic engagement that relies on local capital and capacity to address local needs. The internship program engages students from alternative schools. Previously underutilized spaces in Opelika are now beautiful and productive, meeting the fresh produce needs of neighborhood residents while providing gathering places where residents interact, serving social and cultural as well as nutritional needs. Over 11,000 pounds of produce have been donated to the Community Market, which is part of the Food Bank of East Alabama. In addition, local food businesses purchase O Grows produce, with proceeds benefiting the Community Market and the Student Intern Program.

Those involved with O Grows are fond of saying it is an effort in which everyone wins. Community members have access to locally-produced, nutritious food. The City of Opelika sees neglected places transformed and community networks grow. K-12 students learn in outdoor classrooms and gain an appreciation for fresh produce they grow themselves. Interns are paid for contributing to the success of the program. The Food Bank has received thousands of pounds of fresh food. And Auburn University faculty members have the opportunity to practice engaged scholarship, using their expertise to catalyze positive change in the Opelika community.