Can you imagine fighting crime with fruits and vegetables?
Not with some sort of make-believe banana gun. I'm talking about the real thing here! It sounds a little out there, but believe it or not, the tactic worked for one particular Texas town.
And that's not the only thing that changed.
Over on the East Side of San Antonio, one nonprofit has been re-energizing the community with a back-to-basics approach: gardening.
Stephen Lucke started Gardopia Gardens while attending the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) as a way to educate his peers on the relationship between nutrition and poverty. He felt the best way to address those issues was through a community garden where everyone could get involved and grow amazing produce together.
Today, the project that started out on a college campus has evolved into something much bigger. They now have their own location as well as gardens in five schools and one community center.
This is especially important when you consider the alarming produce situation in the area.
"A large population lives in what we call ‘food deserts,’ and these are areas where healthy, fresh food, particularly produce, is unavailable," Jeff Crane, associate dean at the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at UIW, explains on their YouTube channel.
"So people in those communities are highly dependent on very salty, sugar-laden, high-fat processed food and, frankly, often don’t have access to a grocery store at all. So community gardening is a way to address that issue."
By providing an alternative, Gardopia Gardens can help instill the values of wellness that contribute to a more balanced lifestyle.
Even better, Gardopia Gardens has had a positive effect on one of the highest crime areas in San Antonio.
The intersection of Nolan and New Braunfels has a bit of a dangerous reputation. So Gardopia Gardens set up shop there and helped change that. In the three years since the first seed was planted, crime within a four-block radius dropped over 50%.
Lucke explains: "The reason that we're at that location is we’re doing CPTED, which is Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, and we partnered with the San Antonio Housing Authority and the Byrne Grant that they received from the Department of Justice to help reduce crime in the area."
Essentially, by providing a beautiful oasis in a once-downtrodden part of town, they've made a significant dent in the crime rate. The theory of CPTED says you can influence a particular location by making changes to its design. The goal is to simply to reduce fear and improve the quality of life in the surrounding community.
Local resident Sabrina Garza told the San Antonio Express-News, "I would have never, ever taken my kids anywhere on the East Side to play [before], but now there’s that space and I feel safe."
The garden is also looking to the future by providing knowledge for today’s youth.
"I came to understand that the garden could be interdisciplinary when it comes to academics," says Lucke. "You can teach English, reading, science, math. You can teach any subject and do it kinesthetically so that students can be hands-on learners and hopefully help them retain the information longer."
Take math, for example, a subject you wouldn't necessarily associate with gardening. Lucke explains: "A lot of times students can’t understand the concept of volume or why you use exponents when you’re putting in the units. But I help them understand that if I’m going to purchase soil, I need to know how many cubic yards or cubic feet of soil I need to order."
The best part is the students aren't missing a beat. Lucke makes sure to supplement what they're learning in class with his lessons in the garden so they all work hand in hand. Everything is based on the pacing guide of the school they're working at.
But the most important lesson that the garden is teaching might just be compassion.
After all, gardening can be done by almost anyone. But in this instance, it has the ability to empower a community and break down stereotypes.
"Gardening — not only is it interdisciplinary and intergenerational, but it’s also community-building," says Lucke. "When it’s in the garden, it’s nondiscriminatory. It’s an equalizer. Everybody is getting their hands dirty!"
Despite their incredible success, they know there’s still work to be done.
Like the very plants they help grow, their community initiative needs constant care and attention if it’s going to blossom to its fullest potential. Yes, they have a lot of the basics in place. But their plans for the future would really take Gardopia Gardens to the next level: a full-on community center complete with a juice bar, outdoor gym, Wi-Fi, the works!
So if you're interested in supporting their awesome cause, they could use a little help moving toward their goals.
Whatever happens, no doubt the seeds of change have already been planted.