What had been an unsightly and unused plot of dirt at the Visalia Senior Center on Locust Street in downtown Visalia is now a productive demonstration garden that benefits the entire community, thanks to the efforts of this year’s Leadership Visalia class. The garden is intended to serve as a living classroom to educate locals from all walks of life about fresh foods, demonstrate the many simple options available to grow produce, and encourage residents to take steps toward a healthier diet through gardening.

Leadership Visalia is offered through the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, and focuses on developing young professionals by enhancing their leadership skills and inspiring them to make a difference in their communities. A maximum of 20 participants are recommended for the nine-month program from private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Recent Leadership Visalia graduates, Colin Franey, (Franey’s Design Center), Daryl Sanchez (Family Healthcare Network), and Elizabeth Jacques (Morgan Stanley Wealth Management), sat down in the garden to talk about their experience in the program and their class community project.

One facilitator and a variety of mentors develop the resources for each monthly class. Sessions on health and wellness, agriculture, governance, time management, and public speaking ensure personal, professional, and leadership development. Program participants also work together to plan sessions. Programs are designed to help members understand current local needs and issues so that they can serve the community through their work for many years to come.

The culmination of the leadership program is a community project that must meet several requirements: participants must use the skills they gained and connect with community organizations they met. The project must be sustainable after the class has completed their work, and it must directly benefit a large portion of the community. Everyone in the class is required to participate, and, most importantly, it must be a new idea that has never been implemented before.

The initial concept for the garden came from classmates Trevor Lewis (Amplify Inc.) and Scott Smith (ServiceMaster by Benevento), who noted that although the Central Valley is a community driven by agriculture, many residents don’t understand or benefit from it. The USGS California Water Science Center states, “…the Central Valley supplies 8 percent of U.S. agricultural output (by value) and produces 1/4th of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts, and other table foods,” all while using less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmland*.

It may be surprising to hear that the same Central Valley is considered a “food desert”—a common term describing communities lacking access to healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as meats and dairy products. The absence of large markets that sell these and other healthier food options means residents rely on products purchased easily and inexpensively from fast food and convenience stores in their neighborhoods, which generally contain higher amounts of sugar and fats. This diet leads to a multitude of health issues, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

It is hoped the demonstration garden will help reduce ambivalence people may feel about starting gardens at home. Raised beds and containers show that quite a bit can be grown without land. Information showing how to build, fill, and plant the beds (each made for under $100) will be posted at the center. Elizabeth discussed additional options available to home gardeners. “You can be so creative…planting in pallet and hanging gardens, even in mason jars and in other containers you probably have at home, makes having some type of garden possible for just about everyone.”

One primary goal of the group was getting people around their tables to eat fresh food, spend time together, and mentor each other. They were able to bring community groups together to work on the project, including the Visalia Senior Center, UC Master Gardeners, and youth in the Police Activities League (PAL) program. Through these collaborations, they successfully connected residents across ages, income, and educational levels. The group also learned the ins and outs of working with city personnel when plans needed to be revised to adhere to city regulations.

Local sponsors donated almost $10,000 in cash and additional in-kind gifts. Colin shared that the level of involvement of so many businesses and organizations was inspiring: “Visalia has a great sense of camaraderie and giving back…we received an incredible amount of generous support. They were gracious with their time, talent, and donations.”

When it was time to install the garden, class members and volunteers were on rotation for a week moving dirt around and building the other components. Dwarf Meyer Lemon and tangerine trees, a plum tree, tomatoes, herbs (jasmine, basil, rosemary, thyme), summer squash, strawberries, peppers, and flowers were planted with the utmost of care. As they worked, passersby stopped to inquire what was happening and reacted positively to the project and its goals for the community.

The garden was unveiled at a celebratory open house in May. Going forward, the garden will be maintained by Visalia Parks & Recreation’s newly formed Senior Gardening Club, spearheaded by the UC Master Gardeners. Seniors will take care of the garden and the produce harvested will be used in meals prepared at the senior center.

The three classmates agreed on the impact their Leadership Visalia experience has had. Daryl shared that, “the whole nine months have been an amazing journey—definitely an accomplishment on a personal and professional level.” Colin concurred, stating, “I’m really proud of what we built here—it wasn’t here just two months ago. Where we started in August and where we are now—the journey has been transformational.”

Elizabeth was candid in her assessment that it was “…a life changing program—not for the faint of heart.” She recognized the dedication of the other members of the Class of 2016-17: Eric Anderson (Anderson’s Percussive Services); Jon Bueno (Visalia Chamber of Commerce); Jennifer Corum (Kaweah Delta Health Care District); Vickie Goudreau (Innovative Commercial Flooring, Inc.); Kevin Grant (Visalia Police Department); Fran Herr (AFLAC); Christie Long (Central Valley Community Bank); Uver Moreno (Cal Water); Andrea Navarrette; Gracie Sanchez (Visalia Rescue Mission); Brandy Spray (Visalia Unified School District); Nick Vargas (The Source LGBT+ Center); and Lisa Walsh (Hydrite Chemical), and the generosity of family members who all came to pitch in. vColin agreed, adding, “We built it for the community, and it took a community to build it.”