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Chennai Resilience Centre

Gift a Garden Mission

A garden at a girls shelter. The shelter already had a small green oasis with fruit trees and some vegetable plants in the backyard to which they added the kits provided to them.

By Dr. Parama Roy

Urban gardening is gaining momentum in Indian cities specifically among the middle class population. Organizations like Chennai Resilience Centre (CRC) recognize the potential of urban horticulture initiatives for building resilience within vulnerable communities. By offering opportunities related to growing nutritious food, improving physical and mental health, fostering social cohesion, and presenting skill development and employment possibilities, urban gardening can be imagined as a nature-based solution for building community resilience.

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From left to right: Boys showing off their plants at a  shelter in Kodingayur. The shelter houses rescued boys from the Kodingayur dump yard, opposite the shelter; One of the residents of a girls shelter in North Madras preparing the soil for planting

The Programme and Motivation

CRC’s Gift a Garden initiative hopes to foster better access to healthy and nutritious food for vulnerable citizens. In April 2021, with support from the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre, the CRC distributed mobile vegetable garden kits to 47 homeless shelters across the city. The kits include five varieties of ‘keerai’ or greens seeds and six varieties of vegetable seeds such as Arakeerai, Sirukeerai, Paruppukeerai, Palak keerai, multi-keerai, Tomato, Okra, Cowpea, Cluster Beans, Avarai or Hyacinth Beans and Radish along with grow bags, pot mixture, vermicompost and neem oil-soap mix for pest control.

This programme was inspired by CRC’s previous attempt to offer similar kits to vulnerable families as part of mid-term COVID-relief. The idea was to give lower income households an opportunity to grow healthy, nutritious vegetables and greens and ensure access to food in case of future disruptions, thereby building community resilience. More than just a source of nutritious food, the gardens are proving to be critical spaces for learning, physical activities, building social skills and improving mental health in the homeless shelters.

The Shelters and the Beneficiaries

This project supports shelters for men, women, transgenders, the elderly, boys, girls, differently abled (physical and mental) and special shelters in hospitals for caregivers. Half of them have between eight and 25 residents, and the rest have 25 to 50 residents, with one shelter housing 52 residents. While all the residents are welcome to participate in the gardening work, typically, two staff members are assigned to tend to the garden. Some shelters have made their gardens on the terrace, while others have done so in the front or behind their premises.

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From left to right: A flourishing kitchen garden on the terrace of an elderly men’s shelter in North Madras; A terrace garden at a boys shelter in South Madras.

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From left to right: In this shelter for men with psycho-social needs, the kitchen garden adds aesthetic value by adorning the entrance and provides harvest; Shelter staff and residents setting up the garden at a shelter for women caregivers in a government hospital.

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The shelter coordinators were trained online by Sempulam Sustainable Solutions, a CRC partner, to use the kits effectively. The CRC provides assistance and monitors the progress of the shelters through a WhatsApp group. This group has become a lively space for the shelters to share their achievements and clarify doubts in their journey to nurture their gardens!

The terrace kitchen garden at a shelter for men with psycho-social needs. The shelter had put up a shade net to protect the plants from intense heat during summer.

Screenshots from the WhatsApp group with homeless shelters showing the shelter staff sharing pictures and updates on the status of their gardens.

What's Cooking?

Some shelters have been very successful in tending their gardens, harvesting reasonable amounts of fresh veggies (mostly greens/keerai) in just a few months time. This produce (however little) has been mostly used in the shelter kitchen. Some shelter representatives also spoke of “savings” in food expenditure because of the yield from their gardens.

They are really happy to see the keerai and vegetables grow and to be able to harvest what they have planted.

-Save Trust (Special Shelter for Men at Stanley Hospital)

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From left to right: Keerai harvests at an elderly men’s shelter in Central Madras; Bountiful harvests at an elderly men’s shelter in North Madras. This shelter regularly harvests Keerai and vegetables like eggplant.

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From left to right: Sorting harvests at a shelter for women with psycho-social needs. Gardening has had a calming effect on the residents at these special shelters; Brinjals, okra, cluster beans and keerai harvested at the same elderly men’s shelter.

Nurturing Bodies and Souls

Most participating shelters reported that their engagement with the gardening activity has paid off in terms of nurturing their bodies and souls. However, the gardens mean different things to different groups. For instance, field visits to a boy’s shelter by CRC revealed that the children were observing bees, butterflies, ants and pests attracted to the plants. They learnt that the ants eat the pests which are attracted by the honey secreted by the flowers!

In other shelters for boys and girls, there was healthy competition among the children to see whose plant grew the best. The gardens have become a space of learning, physical activity, and social interaction for the kids.

We have created teams among the girls. Each of them has to take care of a plant and there is competition between them on whose plant grows better. When there are harvests, I put the money saved in a hundi, which I have set up for each girl.

-Gold Heart (Shelter for Girls)

Through this program the children get healthy vegetables and the children learn about the importance of plants.

-Arunodaya (Shelter for boys)

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From left to right: At this girls shelter, each girl is allotted a plant to take care of and the savings from the harvests are added to their individual ‘piggy banks’; At a girls shelter in North Madras. The children are each allotted plants to take care of.

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From left to right: Boys from a shelter in North Madras studying the butterflies attracted to their plants; Boys setting up a kitchen garden at a shelter in Kodingayur. Since the boys set up their garden, they’ve started to learn about the varied types of butterflies which come to their garden; Girls from a shelter in North Madras working together to set up their garden.

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In special shelters for residents with psycho-social problems, the garden is a space where they can calm down and engage in productive work together which improves their mental health and the general atmosphere in the shelter.

From left to right: A resident of a shelter for men with psycho-social needs proudly displaying the harvests from the plants he tended; A resident of a shelter for men with psycho-social needs attending to the plants

Gardening has also helped the homeless and the jobless manage their stress in the pandemic. As spaces of gathering and social interaction, beneficiaries have found solace in spending time participating in garden-related activities. Many women beneficiaries feel that growing their own food has boosted their confidence.

it has improved our self-confidence and we do everything (related to the gardening) ourselves

-Rehoboth (shelter for women)

After a tiring day, staff are feeling relaxed when it comes to gardening.

-Arunodaya (Shelter for boys)

It helps to distract the residents from addictions that they have, remove stress, and remove physical tiredness. They feel refreshed doing gardening together. Corona-related lockdown and job losses has caused a lot of stress for the residents. Gardening has allowed them to improve their emotional and physical health

-VEWCRS (Shelter for Men in Madhavaram)

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Clockwise: Residents of a shelter for elderly men and women sorting through the contents of the garden kit while chitchatting; Residents of a men’s shelter for psycho-social needs actively involved in setting up the garden. Gardening seems to be having a positive impact on their mental health; A resident sowing seeds at a men’s shelter for those with psycho-social needs.

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Clockwise from top:  Residents of a women’s shelter in North Madras setting up their kitchen garden; Residents of a shelter for transgenders in central Chennai sorting through the garden kits and setting up their garden; Gardening is a relaxing and a social activity that the men and women seem to enjoy, especially during the pandemic; Male residents at a shelter in North Madras tending to their garden; Residents of an elderly men's shelter in North Madras picking vegetables for their meal; Residents at an elderly men’s shelter in North Madras gathering vegetables and greens for their meal

Looking Forward

Over the next few months, the CRC will supply mobile vegetable garden kits to more shelters, and continue supporting shelters that have successfully used the garden kits in the first phase of the programme and are interested in adding more plants to their gardens. 

In addition, the CRC plans to set up  a few model farms using the mobile vegetable garden kits in selected shelters to show how these urban farms can positively contribute to public health and environmental sustainability. The long-term vision is to create alternative livelihood opportunities for the vulnerable by training them in organic gardening/farming and ancillary activities like food processing and marketing among others.

Dr. Parama is a Lead Researcher at Okapi Research & Advisory and Adjunct Faculty at IIT-Madras (Chennai, India). She is also the Research Impact Lead for the UPAGrI project. She has a PhD in Human Geography from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research on urban transformations through community-based greening/gardening and collaborative planning processes has been published in international peer reviewed journals like Urban Affairs Review, City, and Geoforum.

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A Unit of Care Earth Trust.

 

Supported by Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center & Resilient Cities Network