Swing by O Grows Community Garden and you might see high school and middle school students planting herbs, or residents tending to their plots. You might see children playing with pet goats. On Saturday mornings, you can see local farmers set up their tables to sell their produce.
O Grows, short for Opelika Grows, is a community-university partnership between Opelika City Schools, the Food Bank of East Alabama, Envision Opelika and Auburn University. It was started in 2012 by Sean Forbes, a professor in Auburn’s College of Education, and Susan Forbes.
The garden is located at 1103 Glenn St. in Opelika. O Grows interacts with the Opelika community via its community garden that is open to anyone, its weekly farmers’ markets and its youth programs to teach students about agriculture.
At the most basic level, the organization serves two functions: improving access to healthy food and giving students, particularly those most often written off by the education system, a place to learn that isn’t a classroom.
“You’ve got students … who could really use some hands-on experiences,” Sean said. “There’s a lot of food insecurity in Opelika. So the way I look at it, one need kind of helps the other, and it’s just a really mutually beneficial thing.”
For many people in Opelika, their home is a long walk from the grocery store. In fact, O Grows is located between two “food deserts,” a term used to designate areas where places to buy healthy food are more than a mile away.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service no longer uses the term “food desert,” the ERS calls the census tract east of O Grows both low income and low access. In that area of town between Second Avenue and Interstate 85, running from 10th Street to Ridge Road, the average person is more than a mile away from a supermarket.
Additionally, 22% of the 1,364 households in the area don’t have vehicles, which makes it even harder to get to a place to buy healthy food.
O Grows began holding farmers’ markets in the summer in 2016. Although she had been volunteering and advocating for the group in previous years, Susan became the farmers’ market manager in 2018 and was in charge of communicating and interacting with both farmers and the general public to spread the word about the market.
“[Susan] was absolutely part of growing the market and, you know, making it a great place to be,” Sean said. O Grows’ weekly farmers’ markets, which are now held year-round, give residents a chance to buy healthy, local food without leaving their neighborhood.
During the offseason, O Grows hosts its markets on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., where a few vendors bring their produce, pastries and other goods and set up in the parking lot to sell.
In the summer, the market is held Tuesday afternoons from 3 to 6 p.m. Sean said that once momentum picks up by the third week of the summer, about 14 vendors will usually show up.
O Grows held its first summer market of 2022 on May 17.
Chris Harman of Harman Family Farms in Opelika has been going to the summer farmers’ markets since they began. On April 30, Harman was one of a few vendors set up for the offseason market.
Harman said his favorite part of the market, besides getting the chance to get some more business for his farm, is being able to engage with the community and see their faces when they try his tomatoes.
Andrew Reynolds, a graduate student at Auburn earning a master’s in adult education who works at O Grows, said he’s trying to get storage facilities at O Grows so food-insecure residents have more options and can get food year round.
“I’m working on getting a cold storage and a dry storage … so people can actually come over here and feel secure for food and not have to worry about stuff,” Reynolds said. “Even if it’s just like oatmeal and eggs — something besides gas station hot dogs, nachos with cheese.”
In addition to farmer’s markets, O Grows has a community garden where residents can purchase a plot of land to grow their own food.
Tony Amerson, captain of community relations for the Opelika Police Department, has a plot at O Grows where he grows several different types of vegetables, like greens, zucchini, tomatoes and onions.
“My grandfather was a big farmer,” Amerson said. “And I used to work with him all the time trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t work when it comes to plants. And as a child, I hated it.”
Now, though, Amerson said he finds peace in working the soil and experimenting with different growing methods. After years of serving in the military and working as a police officer, he said gardening helps him deal with the stress his work can create.
“This is my therapy,” he said. “This kind of helped me with my PTSD, stress relief and a little bit of everything else. So yeah, it kind of takes my mind off of it.”
Amerson and his wife use the food grown there for their dinners, and he also delivers some of his crops to some of the people in the community who need food. And while he enjoys the harvest, Amerson said he values the act of gardening and working with his hands more than seeing a good return.
“I found out that coming out here in the garden, and just being able to get away and get off the hamster wheel, it nourishes my soul,” he said. “The harvest at the end is great. But really, I’m trying to nourish the soul.”
The Forbes’ first project with O Grows was creating a garden at Southview Primary School in Opelika in 2012. At the time, as an associate professor in the College of Education at Auburn University, Sean said they had two reasons for starting the school garden.
“The idea there initially was just to get my students a chance to do something out with kids in schools and also give the kids in the school something other than just classroom stuff, like give them some actual physical outdoor education,” Sean said.
They went on to start gardens at other local schools with help from colleagues and students.
To date, O Grows has established gardens at six different schools in the area and has engaged thousands of K-12 students in project-based and interdisciplinary learning After talking with former Opelika City Schools Superintendent Mark Neighbors, the Forbes started working with students at the Opelika Learning Center (OLC), whom Sean said he felt may benefit the most from hands-on education.
OLC is a K-12 school that functions as the school district’s “alternative school,” where many of the students enrolled were sent for disciplinary reasons.
O Grows devotes most of its energy in schools to OLC, teaching a food systems course that is held every day throughout the school year at OLC’s campus or at O Grows’ community garden.
When working with students from OLC, it’s important that the space is a learning environment, but that students are still able to lead the experience, said Jessi Riel, who handles community engagement and education at O Grows.
“The idea here is to give them a space where they can learn practical skills,” Riel said. “They can get things that they can put on their resume, like learning gardening and cooking skills. They can have a space where people are invested in them, believing in them and giving them a lot of autonomy in what they’re doing.”
O Grows also offers a paid internship program primarily for students most at risk of dropping out of school.
The program started in 2014 thanks to a donation from Pharmavite, a California-based dietary supplements company with a manufacturing facility in Opelika. Since then, 15 students have participated in the year-long internship program.
When Tyquavious Barnett was transferred to the Opelika Learning Center in 2019, he got the chance to meet Sean, who was teaching the health systems class. It was Barnett’s senior year, and he needed help getting ready for life after graduation.
After seeing how hard Barnett worked, Sean offered him a position as an intern at O Grows. As he worked in the garden, Barnett said he saw his work ethic improve. While he played football in previous years, he said working in the garden was different — with only three to four people out there, you can’t slack off.
After deciding he wanted to join the Army, Sean helped Barnett study for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, or ASVAB, the entry test for the military. When Barnett said he needed extra help with the math section, Sean got him set up with a math professor at Auburn University to tutor him.
Now in Poland as a construction engineer for the army, Barnett still speaks highly of Sean and his time at O Grows.
“He’s really the backbone and just treated everybody like family, doing what he can to make sure everybody gets what they need,” Barnett said. “Dr. Forbes is just a great man.”
When Sean looks back on the countless hours they have put into O Grows, he smiles.
“It has been the single greatest experience of my professional life,” he said. “I mean, that’s hands down. It’s
the most generous thing I’ve ever been a part of.”