Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) Program Montgomery County Ohio working with a Dayton, Ohio Community Center to sustainably diminish a local “Food Desert”

By Suzanne Mills-Wasniak, Brad Bergefurd, &  Tony Nye – The Ohio State University Cooperative Extension


Similar to other metropolitan cities in the United States, Dayton, Ohio experienced a double digit (15%) population decline from 2000 to 2010.  Accompanying the population decline was a decrease in employment opportunities, an increase in abandoned homes and businesses, and an increased need for fresh, nutritious produce availability in identified “food deserts.”  Neighborhood demographics were changing, resulting in the opportunity for neighborhood revitalization. 3

In 2009 the City Manager established working groups within the city government to address current city problems.  Their purpose was to think outside the normal city practices to address problems.  A working group led by Aaron Sorrell, the soon-to-be Director of the Department of Planning and Community Development, was established to address the vacant / abandoned lots.   Responsible for maintaining over 6000 vacant lots equivalent to 400 acres, mowing grass was becoming a major issue for economic and neighborhood stability reasons.  The Ohio State University Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program in Montgomery County was contacted by the “vacant lot” working group to see if some of the lots could be re-purposed for agricultural production.  The first “Vacant to Vibrant” Urban Agriculture Pilot Project site produced over a thousand pounds of fresh produce in the first two months of operation.  Agricultural production within a city was possible.  While pursuing the agricultural re-purposing of vacant lots the city established a systematic demolition program for abandon properties and a Landbank to hold selected properties for future development was created.  

In 2012 Molina Healthcare’s Director of Community Outreach, Jan Reed, partnered with Ohio State University Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Program and the City to fund an urban agriculture project in an identified “food desert.”  The neighborhood served by Wesley Community Center was selected.  A true community center, Wesley Center provides educational opportunities; employment counseling; a clothing and food pantries; after school activities; senior activities and transportation; and other vital community based services.   The neighborhood serviced by Wesley Center saw a 28% decline in population from 2000 to 2010.3 Another Molina criteria was that a substantial number of the residents were limited resource families living at or below the national poverty level.  The technical component of the project for Agriculture and Natural Resources Educators was to transform the Wesley community garden into a sustainable agricultural enterprise.  The educational component of the project for the Educators was to concentrate on the Wesley Center youth while providing an intergenerational experience with the Wesley seniors group.

Wesley Center History

Established in 1966 by the Methodist Mission Society, Wesley Center is a non-profit and was relocated in 1976 to its current location on Delphos Avenue in West Dayton.  Wesley Park, a gift from the IAMS Corporation (dog and cat food manufacturer) and Clay Mathile (IAMS CEO), adjoins the Wesley Center. This former IAMS production facility site is the home of the Wesley Center’s community garden.  The mission of Wesley Center is “To meet the spiritual and basic needs of families of all ages; offering assistance in education and training, employment and human assistance (food, clothing, and shelter) in transitioning families towards self-sufficiency.”

Wesley Center serves approximately 5,600 people.  African Americans make up 95% of the clientele with 24% being under eighteen years of age.  The sociodemographics of the Wesley neighborhood are as follows:

 “73% of Wesley families and individuals are living at or below the poverty level 

 51.8% of the households live on less than $25,000 per year

 45% of Wesley households with children under eighteen live at or near the poverty level

 In 2009 34.6% of the Wesley families utilized SNAP benefits.”

Wesley Center houses a food pantry supplied every other week with fresh fruits and vegetables by the local Foodbank.  This is a needed nutritional resource for the population served by the Wesley Center.

Methods, Materials, and Education

Part of Wesley Park had for years been used as a community garden with individual plots.  By the middle of June 2012 only 6 of the plots were being used.  An area 100 feet by 17 feet was identified, staked off, and an analysis of soil samples revealed acceptable fertility ranges.  

With youth ages 3 to 18 years of age and seniors with limited mobility being the primary garden workforce a certified Master Gardener who lived in the Wesley service area was recruited to assist with the project.  The need to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, to maximize production, and that the site be viewed as educational required the utilization of commercial production techniques.  The site was conventionally plowed in early April but had not been mowed.  The weeds were hand pulled by the youth, ages 6 to 13 years, using an exercise game similar to follow the leader, with the Master Gardener being the leader.  After the weeds were an acceptable height, a 15 by 100 foot ground cover cloth was rolled out and pinned in place.  The purpose of the ground cover cloth was to retain soil moisture and provide the transplants with a suitable growing environment.  The ground cover cloth would also dramatically reduce the weeding requirements thus making the site an enjoyable educational experience for both the youth and seniors.

In 2012 the youth attending summer camp were responsible for planting, maintenance and harvest.  Supervision with an educational component was provided by the Extension Educators with the assistance of the certified Master Gardener.  Vegetable transplants were obtained from a local greenhouse.  Each summer camp youth participant was shown how to plant and care for the transplants before they planted their first plant.  Popsicle sticks with the name of the youth planting the transplant were placed with the plant, thus giving the youth a sense of ownership.  

The neighborhood, the youth, and seniors watched the garden grow and produce.  The Center hosted a formal tour for Educators from another state.  Wesley Center visitors were drawn to the garden to see what was happening.  The garden site had unrestricted access however, no vandalism (plants completely removed) occurred.  There was some theft of produce before harvest but was less than five percent.  As harvest occurred the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program conducted educational programming on nutrition and how to prepare the fresh produce.

The harvested produce was taken to the Wesley Center Food Pantry to be distributed to Wesley Center clientele.  The four month growing season from planting to first frost yielded over six hundred pounds of fresh nutritious produce.         

2012 Evaluation

The partners held an evaluation review of the project in December.  The garden site provided an aesthetic improvement to what was an over grown weed patch, over six hundred pounds of fresh nutritious produce on site for their food pantry,  an educational experience for the youth, and a source of pride for the neighborhood.  The most profound success was the educational experience for the youth.  Some of the youth thought that the tomatoes on their sandwiches came from the food pantry or neighborhood convenience store.  The cucumber in the garden had not been associated with the pickle on their sandwich. 

The project did have challenges.  Foremost for the project to be sustainable, when the grant funds were no longer available, the produce needed to provide a monetary return.  A portion of the harvest could be donated but some needed to be sold.  A business plan needed to be developed.  The project was heavily dependent on the Extension Educators and Master Gardener Volunteers.  Two additional Master Gardener Volunteers joined the project mid-season.  Wesley Center staff and volunteers needed to become more engaged in the day to day operation with support of the Educators and Master Gardener Volunteers.

All partners agreed that the project needed to continue in 2013 with changes made to make it sustainable.


Prior to the growing season it was determined by the Wesley Center that there was little interest in maintaining traditional community garden plots.  The additional garden space provided the opportunity to partner with a neighborhood church with experience in growing produce for sale.  The church was interested in expanding their produce enterprise; Wesley Center had the land base but lacked confidence in their ability to run a for profit enterprise.  The church agreed to take one half of the available land in exchange for assisting Wesley Center in making the conversion to a for profit at least breakeven enterprise.  Extension would continue to provide support to both Wesley Center and the church with Educators and Master Gardener Volunteers continuing with educational programming. 

Wesley Center youth, seniors, and staff prepared and planted their garden site with assistance from the Educators and Master Gardener Volunteers.  A drip irrigation system was installed to make watering more efficient and less labor intensive.  Educational programs for the summer youth program were conducted by Educators and the Master Gardener Volunteer.  The neighborhood church planted their half of the garden site and assisted in installing the drip irrigation system in exchange for a drip irrigation system being installed on their side.

As the harvest season approached the value of the produce was still an abstract concept to Wesley Center.  Cucumbers were just starting to be harvested when the neighborhood church had a customer request more cucumbers than they could supply.  Wesley Center had the cucumbers.  The first sale was made and a check for the cucumbers was delivered to Wesley Center the next day.  

As a Foodbank pantry fresh produce was delivered to Wesley Center weekly.  Ohio has a program called Second Harvest that pays producers for produce delivered to food pantries.  Wesley Center contracted with Second Harvest to sell their produce to them. The Foodbank would pick it up when the truck delivered to the food pantry.  The circle was complete Wesley sold produce but received produce in return.  A business plan acceptable to Wesley Center’s mission statement was developed.  In 2013 over 1200 pounds of produce was sold by Wesley Center to the Foodbank.  A high tunnel will be included in the 2014 production plans.  


1 Wesley Center History and Mission Statement 

2 Kruse, Jessica; Wright State University; Wesley Community Health Assessment 2013

 3 City of Dayton, Department of Planning and Community Development Report


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