Back-Farms Program In Utah Pairs Gardeners With Disadvantaged Seniors

A program pairing volunteer gardeners with senior citizens shows the potential for innovative ways to feed the hungry worldwide.


May 13 2019, Updated 5:35 p.m. ET

In recent years, we’ve seen a deepening commitment to connect people with the food they eat. 

The number of community gardens across the country has surged, we’ve seen the return of victory gardens, ramped-up efforts and innovations in urban farming, and you can’t turn around without learning about another at-home aquaponic, hydroponic, vertical, or container garden for your home. But while we invigorate a younger generation and remind people to rethink their own food supply, one demographic too often gets left out of the equation: senior citizens.

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Not so with The Green Urban Lunch Box, a non-profit in Salt Lake City, Utah, that has found a unique way to bring elders into the propagation of their own food. Through the charity’s Back-Farms program, Green Urban Lunch Box and area volunteers install organic fruit and vegetable gardens in the yards of low-income senior citizens. The plots are maintained throughout the year by volunteers. It’s a unique program in that region, but one that could be extrapolated in communities all across the U.S. and world.

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The Green Urban Lunch Box thrives on innovation.

The Green Urban Lunch Box was founded in 2011 by Shawn Peterson, who also serves as the group’s executive director. The group’s mission, as stated on its website, is "to empower people to engage in local food production by using the resources available in their community... by connecting people to a creative network of spaces and opportunities." Green Urban Lunch Box uses innovative techniques — from a mobile farm in the back of a school bus to distributing private caches of fruit before they go to waste — in order to facilitate groundbreaking methods for fighting hunger. In addition to the non-profit’s Back-Farms program, the group has four other major initiatives:

  • Fruitshare, a partnership with fruit-tree owners and volunteers that involves private citizens registering their fruit trees, which are then harvested and split three ways: one-third to homeowner, one-third to volunteers, and one-third to hunger relief.
  • Mobile Market, a greenhouse and produce cart housed in a 35-foot converted school bus that visits food deserts throughout Salt Lake City to deliver below-market cost produce. The mobile market also stops at every senior center in Salt Lake County four times every year for free markets that distribute fresh produce to the seniors.
  • Small Farm Initiative, a farm-training program that teaches people how to profitably grow food in urban areas.
  • Community-Supported Agriculture, in which local residents can purchase weekly shares of fresh-grown, organic produce for a full season.
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    Back-Farms empowers disadvantaged seniors while feeding them.

    "The way that Back-Farms is structured has impacted the daily lives and health of our participating seniors," Katie Nelson, Back-Farms Coordinator, said in an interview with Green Matters. To date, the program has installed 27 gardens and grown more than 11,000 pounds of food. In 2017 alone, 207 people volunteered to help with Back-Farms, committing more than 1,000 hours of time to the work.

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    To participate in Back-Farms, properties must be registered and matched with volunteers. From there, organic gardens are built, cultivated and maintained in the backyards of disadvantaged seniors at zero cost to the homeowner. "Garden Apprentices," or GPs, are assigned to specific gardens for the entirety of the growing season."Many of our seniors live alone and have some sort of physical limitation that affects their mobility," Nelson said. 

    "Our garden staff and garden apprentices visit each of our gardens and seniors twice each week during the growing season. During these visits, many of the seniors step outside into their gardens and engage in conversation and camaraderie with our volunteers and staff. Seniors express how much they used to love to garden and haven't been able to due to physical limitations. By coordinating folks of a younger generation who are able bodied to do all the physical labor of gardening, participating seniors are able to have a garden again."

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    Involving seniors in growing their own food impacts more than nutrition.

    Studies show that gardening significantly reduces stress levels, repairs and may even prevent dementia. Of course, Nelson doesn’t need studies to know any of this — she witnesses the effects of gardens on people almost daily. "During the season, seniors share how much they love watching their garden grow," she said. 

    "Many of them watch their garden through a window or walk to it every day to enjoy the beautiful vegetables, flowers, and herbs thrive. They take in the natural beauty of the garden. Seniors also receive a weekly share of vegetables from their gardens for themselves. Many of our seniors are from a generation that grew their own food. The ability for them to be self sufficient again is so rewarding. They get to eat vegetables that were grown so close to home, enjoying all the beneficial nutrients and vitamins. Many have noted that they eat more vegetables than before because they are in our program. Access to these fresh vegetables also eases constraints on their tight monthly budgets."

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    For the volunteers, Back-Farms lights a new spark.

    "Many of our GP's have never gardened or grown their own food before," Nelson said. "This exposure to urban gardening is empowering for these folks to understand where food comes from, how to grow it while practicing organic methods, and how to explore different recipes and ways to cook vegetables they may not be used to eating. We try to grow a variety of vegetables in our gardens, some are new to both seniors and GP's."

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    But as with the seniors, GP’s experiences in these gardens ends up being about much more than food.

    "GP's have an opportunity to forge new relationships with folks of an older generation," Nelson said. "Many of our seniors and GP's have become friends, sharing stories, experiences, and recipes with one another during weekly visits. We even have some who extend their friendships beyond the garden and go to lunch together and attend birthday parties. Finally, some of our GP's live in an apartment or rent a place where they do not have their own space to garden. By volunteering their time in the seniors' gardens, they have access to land to grow their own food on. GP's also receive a weekly share of the produce grown in the garden they apprentice in."

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    And in true Green Urban Lunch Box fashion, any produce not used by the seniors is donated to nearby senior centers.

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    Back-Farms is transforming the communities it serves.

    "This program is so important to our community is so many ways," Nelson said. "I believe that senior citizens are oftentimes forgotten community members. These folks still have so much to contribute to our community and have very few opportunities to do so. By sharing their yard in our program, not only do they open up a space for community to gather, they also beautify their spaces while providing locally grown produce for others. Participating seniors begin to feel connected again to the people around them and many share that they are able to give back to others."

    And the hunger relief extends well beyond the properties housing the gardens. "Back-Farms also contributes a large quantity of locally grown organic vegetables to aid in hunger relief in Salt Lake County," Nelson said. "After our seniors and GP's receive a share of vegetables from the gardens, the remainder is shared at our free Senior Center Farmers Markets hosted at Salt Lake County Senior Centers. Since 2015, we have grown and distributed 34,000 pounds of fresh organic vegetables to our community for free."

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    Green Urban Lunch Box’s Shawn Peterson says that extended connection is what resonates most with him. "My favorite part of the program is how it goes beyond food to truly connect people," he told Green Matters. "This programs provide an opportunity for seniors to share the valuable knowledge and space they have to make their community a better place; and for the volunteer to connect to a generation with so many valuable lessons and stories to share."

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    As in any tradition surrounding meals, storytelling is central.

    Nelson said she could never hope to count all the fun stories from her time in senior gardens with volunteers through the Back-Farms program.

    "During our weekly visit, one of our seniors ventures out to the garden with us to sit and chat while we work in her garden," Nelson said. "She pulls up a chair and sits in the shade and heckles us while we toil in the sun. In good humor, she says, 'Hey you missed one over here,' referring to a weed, or she'll say to the GP, 'Oh, you'll be in trouble with the boss today for not doing your job.' She's a hoot. She is such a social lady and in the past few years since we have been gardening for her, her mobility has declined. She isn't able to go out and about as much as she once could, so by coming to her house, it's a real treat for her to sit and have people to talk to."

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    Many of the seniors have gardening advice, too. "We had one gentleman tell us how he used to put a can of tuna in the hole where he planted tomatoes," Nelson said. "One of our seniors would share her favorite recipes with us, one of which was mayonnaise cake. Sounds, weird but used to be a thing back in the day."

    Nelson counts herself as lucky for having a gig like Back-Farms Coordinator. "From doing this job, I feel so blessed to have known so many spectacular and interesting people that I wouldn't have otherwise have known," she said. "Many of the seniors I've had the pleasure to garden for, I consider them my friend. I have learned so much from them, not only about gardening and the weather, but about life and relationships. Back-Farms is an amazing project and I am so lucky to be a part of it."

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