The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tuesday awarded Anniston a portion of a $250,000 grant to develop and build several community gardens in the downtown area. City leaders say the gardens would be part of their larger plan to revitalize downtown and improve the lives of residents.
The grant is part of the Livable Communities program, created last year through a partnership between the EPA, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Mayor Vaughn Stewart said the city applied for the grant in October.
"It's an opportunity for Anniston to step up to the plate as far as being a player in the healthy community, livable community arena," Stewart said. "It's also about shopping local and growing local, providing citizens with locally grown food while teaching students about growing food ... it's just a great thing for the city to be involved with."
Stewart said the tentative plan is to use the money to create two or three community gardens in the downtown area.
"What we will do now is get community members already interested in community gardens and the farmer's market and let them have input in how to use the funds," Stewart said.
The program focuses on developing local food systems as a means of revitalizing traditional downtowns and promoting economic development. Anniston was one of four cities chosen for the grant, each of which will use portions of the $250,000 available on individual projects.
Ed Fendley, program manager for the Livable Communities program for the EPA, said he did not know how much of the $250,000 Anniston will eventually receive. However, between $18,000 and $25,000 will be spent just on technical and planning assistance for the gardens, Fendley said. Fendley said a local workshop will be scheduled in a few months to start the planning process.
"We'll help community leaders refine their plans," Fendley said. "But it's up to the community to decide what their goals are."
Generating interest isn’t expected to be difficult. Local organizers of other community gardens in the area say the sites have brought residents together while providing healthy food to those in need.
David West, extension coordinator for the Calhoun County Extension Service, said his agency organized the Cane Creek Community Garden at McClellan four years ago. The garden has grown to 64 active garden boxes and is maintained mainly by area residents.
West said it's important for urban areas to set aside land near residents for use as community gardens.
"It gives people the opportunity to see how food is grown and see food picked right, as opposed to most food you see in the grocery that was grown a week ago and shipped from halfway around the world," West said. "Plus, gardening is good exercise"
Joe Jankoski, who started organizing a community garden on West 10th Street more than a year ago while he was executive director of the Calhoun County Community Development Corporation, agreed with West that community gardens benefit residents. Jankoski said he and other volunteers plan to expand the garden Saturday.
"It's a great way to bring the community together ... bring people of diverse backgrounds together and working toward common goals," Jankoski said of community gardens. "And you tend to put them in places that are dilapidated ... so you're turning something negative into a positive."
Jankoski noted that poorer residents in the area tend to lack access to healthier foods.
"You have to put out access to good, healthy food that's easy to obtain and cheap and community gardens help to do that," Jankoski said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.