Jazmyn Benjamin teaches kids in Columbus’ Hilltop neighborhood how to grow fruits and vegetables. On a nearly half-acre parcel of land, she’s helping shape their family mealtimes and their futures.
Twenty boisterous kids squeeze in together on benches beneath the shade of a grapevine-covered arbor at Highland Youth Garden in Columbus’ Hilltop neighborhood. Today, the summer campers will pick their first crop of black raspberries, but first, their teacher, 28-year-old Jazmyn Benjamin, shares a lesson on the role flowers play in growing fruits and vegetables.
“What is one flower that turns into a fruit?” she asks the kids.
“Strawberry,” shouts one girl, who remembers picking them this spring in the Highland Youth Garden’s high tunnel.
Benjamin grew up eating fruits and vegetables with her family in suburban Westerville. She thought all families did the same until she studied the emerging issue of food deserts while working on her sociology degree at The Ohio State University. She learned one in every five Ohio children live in food-insecure households, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s term for the limited or uncertain ability to provide nutritious meals. That ratio translates to 575,000 Ohio kids who don’t know where their next meal will come from.
“I was surprised to learn this was happening so close to home,” Benjamin recalls. “Just 10 miles away, there is this huge Hilltop neighborhood — 20 square miles — and the whole area is considered a food desert.”
So, in the summer of 2015, Benjamin started growing her own food at a community garden in Old Town East, a neighborhood on the east side of Columbus. That experience fueled her budding passion to empower others to do the same. Early the following spring, she found a job posting for Highland Youth Garden’s lead educator, the garden’s first full-time hire.
“It was dead on to what I wanted to do,” she recalls, “working outside in nature and teaching kids about growing food.”
Benjamin was hired and took over the educational responsibilities from founder Peggy Murphy, who created the garden in 2009 after two recreation centers in the area closed. Murphy had located a vacant lot and thought a garden would be a safe place for kids to gather. Over the next eight years, she and a team of volunteers within the community and beyond transformed the barren property into a thriving, nearly half-acre garden.
“Once I started at the garden, [food insecurity] became more real as I saw neighbors going to corner markets to buy processed foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Benjamin says.
Today, Benjamin, who has overseen the garden since 2016, teaches weekly lessons to 275 elementary-school kids, works weekend farmers markets and hosts community celebrations. She gets the job done with help from 600 volunteers and leans on the garden’s 10 board members for advice.
Board member Bill Klein and others answered her horticulture questions. Klein shared his experience running a farm stand and helped Benjamin configure a series of rotating row crops to make the garden more productive. He also helped her tap into the talents of the garden’s volunteers. Together, they recruited and organized teams of master gardeners, church members and horticulture and construction-industry professionals to complete various projects, including creating raised beds for asparagus, a high-tunnel greenhouse for year-round produce, an herb garden and a native pollinator garden.
Today, the Highland Youth Garden produces 5,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. Half is sent home with the kids, and the balance is donated to local food pantries and sold at farmers markets to raise money for the garden.
“While many other teens are sleeping in on Saturday morning, these kids show up at 7 to harvest, clean and set up our produce before the market even opens at 9,” Benjamin says.
When it comes to building community support, Benjamin turned to board member Cheryl Banks, a longtime Hilltop resident, for help in tackling one of her greatest struggles: garden vandalism. During the summer of 2017, Benjamin arrived several mornings to find remnants of the previous night’s destruction: a torched hoop house, damaged plants and the repeated smashing of a lending library box.
“On my drive each morning to work, I had a sick feeling in my gut dreading what I might find,” she recalls.
Eventually, Banks and other neighbors began coming to the garden and sharing that they were watching and looking out for anyone doing harm.
“The vandalism brought new faces to the garden,” Benjamin says, “and neighbors came to meet one another, talk with each other and make it a point to protect their garden.”
With that challenge behind her, Benjamin now focuses on teaching the kids about growing food and eating healthy with the help of retired teachers and board members Lisa Hobson and Beth Urban. They work with kids from Highland Elementary as well as the Educational Academy of Boys and Girls, Shalom Zone and Buckeye Ranch.
“When we first started, we had a tough time convincing kids to try beets, carrots and peas,” Benjamin says, adding that they created a simple rule. “You have to try it; and if you don’t like it, you can spit it out … Now, kids even eat spinach straight from the garden without any salad dressing.”
Education sessions at Highland Youth Garden begin with a 5-to-10-minute lesson, story, snack and activity. Later, while the kids are planting peanuts, shelling popcorn kernels, digging potatoes or tying string trellises, Benjamin weaves in lessons related to their classroom curriculum.
“We’re not just growing food — that’s a plus; we’re growing kids,” Benjamin says.
Bill Dawson is the program manager of Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Growing to Green program, which helped start and supports 250 central Ohio community gardens including Highland. He says it is one of the best in the nation for its programming and number of kids served, and Dawson has led tours there when the city hosted conferences for the American Public Gardens Association and the National Youth Garden Association.
“Jaz is great with the kids,” he says. “She drops to her knees, looks the kids in the eyes and digs in the dirt with them.”
During the monthly community celebrations at the garden, Benjamin and her students make colorful banners to invite the neighbors. At the latest gathering, students and their families toured the garden, picked lettuce, chopped ingredients for a salad and took home tomato plants and vegetable seed packets to grow at home.
“When Jazmyn and I go door to door ... all the kids come running out of their houses shouting ‘Ms. Jazmyn, Ms. Jazmyn, our garden teacher is here,’ ” Banks says. “She’s the pied piper. She’s the one who’s connecting with the children, and they’re taking those lessons home to their families.”
Seeing that the lessons learned in the garden have a lasting impact on the students — including one 13-year-old who now returns to help younger kids learn — is the biggest reward for Benjamin.
“To get to see teenagers excited about nature and growing food, it makes me hopeful,” she says. “Even living in a rough world, kids can still have a beautiful, safe and peaceful place to discover their own passions.”
To learn more about the Highland Youth Garden, visit highlandyouthgarden.org.