For SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Janesville, the annual mini grant program has been a unique initiative in providing community-based organizations with financial support to address the health priorities identified through triannual community health needs assessment (CHNA). In 2020, the SSM Health mini grant program encouraged community-based organizations to apply for funds if addressing a Social Determinant of Health (SDoH) category, which can be attributed to 80% of health outcomes.
This year, Community Action, Inc. of Rock and Walworth Counties (CAI) was awarded $5,000 to expand the Merrill Community Sharing Garden in Beloit. Community Action, Inc. has been fighting poverty in local neighborhoods since 1965 with over 20 programs available in the two-county area.
The history of the Merrill Community Sharing Garden goes back nearly 13 years. In 2007, Community Action, Inc. launched the Merrill Housing Initiative, a neighborhood revitalization project targeting a five-block area of the high-poverty Merrill Neighborhood on Beloit’s east side. Unfortunately, this area has faced significant drug and gang activity, loitering, and periodic violent crimes, has high unemployment and poverty rates, and is the most socially and economically challenged area in Beloit.
The Merrill Neighborhood is also a food desert which made them a perfect candidate to receive grant funds, not only for addressing food insecurity and access to healthy foods but also community inclusivity, changing the physical environment, and providing an educational opportunity for community members.
In early 2008, the Merrill project received permission from the owner of the vacant lot to plant a small 10’x10’ garden. In 2009, the garden was expanded, and the Merrill Community Garden began. Since then, volunteers work side-by-side with local neighbors and the garden’s produce is openly shared with the greater Beloit community. In 2019, the garden had over 700 food-producing plants being regularly harvested.
The Merrill Community Sharing Garden SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital – Janesville mini-grant application had a strategic plan to include building an outdoor classroom, increasing food production by adding a rain collection system, planting new fruit trees, establishing a new driveway and securing proper signage for the garden.
And then Covid-19 happened.
Even with the challenges that a pandemic creates, the Merrill Community Sharing Garden continued onward. To date, five of the six benches for the outdoor classroom have been built, the foundation is set, and the educational signs are around the structure. Four new fruit trees have been planted and the amount of food produced by the garden has doubled since last year.
The funding of the project has led to a greater level of health equity.