MENALLEN TWP. — Reaching their hands into the soil, children at the Village of Searights Community Center began the first step in growing their own potatoes. 

A partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, the Uniontown Arts Fellowship (UAF) and the Phoenix Arts Center, the “potato barrel project” was developed as a way to entice children to participate in the summer food service program.

“Fingers crossed, and prayers up — it’s the first time we tried it,” said Carrie Attaway, UAF secretary. “It takes 100 to 120 days for the potatoes to mature … I sure hope there are potatoes in there afterwards.”

Attaway, who instructed the children Thursday afternoon on the process of growing potatoes, credits the idea to her father.

“He grew potatoes in a barrel,” she said. “They were the best things I ever ate. It just evolved into doing it in a sack.”

Although Attaway classifies the potato barrel project as an experiment, a green, leafy potato plant growing several feet high served as a positive example for the children.

“I planted mine about the second week of May,” she said. “So it’s really, really big.”

While there are no income guidelines to participate in the potato program, organizers said the project is an outreach to the 7,460 children in Fayette County who suffer from food insecurity, meaning they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, according to information from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Cynthia Moore, educator and community engagement director with the food bank, said the summer food service program was designed to ensure that young people have access to the same meals they have during the school year, in the summer. The program, however, is open to any child 18 years of age or younger, regardless of income level. A child with a disability, 21 years of age or younger, may also participate.

Last summer, 79,145 meals were served to approximately 2,166 children in Fayette County.

“The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has been reaching out to our region to try to close the gap in the number of kids who are accessing the meals,” Moore said. “One of the things that we try to do is to connect with local groups to identify ways to provide activities.”

And the potato barrel project is just one of the many activities local groups are providing this summer in conjunction with the food program.

“The idea is to keep them coming back,” Attaway said. “We want the kids to come here. We want to make sure they’re fed, and to keep them coming back, we give them an activity. They leave their potato bags here, and every day when they come back for a meal, they’re going to check on it, to see how it’s doing.”

In addition to the Village of Searights Community Center, the potato barrel project is also being conducted at Marion Villa Apartments, Solid Rock Ministry, Calvary Baptist Church and the Keisterville Community and Youth Center, with the hope to reach 125 children at the five sites.

“Nobody should be hungry if there’s soil and seed,” Attaway said. “And it’s there — it’s readily available all around us. I see a future of urban gardening that can transform Uniontown — this whole area.”

Those living in the Village of Searights Community Center have already embraced this idea. Community members are involved in tending to a garden, the fruits and vegetables of which are shared by all.

“It’s an example of mutual aid at its finest,” Moore said. “They’re sharing among themselves. Not only are they sharing in the maintenance, but then the yield. Whatever the garden produces, they are going to share in the community. That’s a wonderful example of how the community comes together to support each other.”

Moore said what she sees at the community center in Searights is a rare find.

“This is a gem,” she said. “I have worked in hundreds of housing communities, in my career, and this is rare.”

Businesses in the community have also supported the idea of urban gardening by donating items needed for the potato barrel project.

Donors for the project are Home Depot and Lowes, both of Uniontown, Miller’s Greenhouse in Smithfield, Agway in Waynesburg, Coventry Health Care and Hajduk and Associates in Markleysburg.

Attaway, however, said money raised from selling a professionally published cookbook with potato recipes gathered from the children, will hopefully propel the program into the future.

“I really see this as a grassroots kind of program with limitless potential,” Attaway said. “I’m more than willing, and happy, to share how I did it with anybody and everybody. And I think if more people would adopt that, ‘let’s teach the men to fish’ kind of attitude, we can really make a difference and make some changes.”

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