Craig Wilkes is one of the founders of Go Green, Meridian!, a non-profit based in Meridian, Mississippi focused on empowering its community to make healthy and sustainable choices. As a part of this initiative Go Green, Meridian! has been growing a food garden called the “Love and Peas Community Garden” for the past seven years.
Tell me about yourself.
My name is Craig Wilkes. I’m in Meridian, Mississippi. This is a small southern town in South East Mississippi, there’s about 74,000 residents in this county. It’s a very typical southern town: very poor, a mix of black and white, some Latinos and some Asians. I was born and raised here, but left here when I was 18. I lived in San Francisco and New York City for thirty years, got married to my husband in New York and we moved back here to Mississippi about 7 years ago. I have my own business I run a bra Factory in Sri Lanka and I do a lot of volunteer stuff here in Mississippi.
How did you get involved with Go Green, Meridian?
I came together with a group of like-minded people, liberals I would call them, but there are Republicans and Democrats, black and white, and we formed a little group called Go Green, Meridian!. It was originally structured around bringing awareness to growing your own food, healthy eating, even beekeeping—all types of natural initiatives that you can do to improve your life that don’t cost too much money.
How has community gardening become part of Go Green, Meridian’s mission?
After I joined the group, about 7 years ago, we came up with the idea to start a local community garden that teaches organic and sustainable best practices for growing food. After a local businessman donated the use of some commercial land, we broke ground and planted the Love and Peas Community Garden. Community gardens can be set up so that you have you own a little plot that you rent and you do what you do. We decided to do more of a teaching garden where everyone comes and works together. We teach people how to grow food organically and sustainably and then we share equally everything that comes out of the garden. The garden is open to all and we work as a group 4 hours per week 52 weeks of the year. It’s really become a beautiful, calming spot that people like to come to.
Who are some of the people you work with in this garden and what initiatives do you run?
We host school groups, church groups and garden groups. The group itself is open to everyone; we have a diverse group in terms of race, religion, politics, and gender. We provide demonstrations, teach classes and donate food to local food banks. Fresh local organic produce is a rare thing to offer in that particular situation. Some of the classes we teach include cooking courses, sustainability practices and gardening workshops.
What types of produce do you grow in that garden? What’s your favorite?
We are very lucky with our climate in Mississippi. Everyone knows of the summer heat and humidity of the deep South, but folks don’t realize you can grow food all fall and winter as well. We grow everything from lettuce to tomatoes, but we also specialize in tea plants, medicinal plants and beneficial plants for pollinators, especially butterflies. My favorites are summer tomatoes and winter greens.
Could you tell me about a day you spent as a group in the Love and Peas Community Garden that really sticks out to you?
This past fall we had a group of 1st to 5th grade students come tour the garden. Some of the kids are troubled and having difficulty learning and behavior problems. One of the students was so surprised by the smell and taste of fresh mint that he ran up to the school supervisors to share this new experience with him. The principal was astonished as it was the first positive interaction the two had ever had.
By this point you’re a gardening pro, do you have any tips for people just starting or thinking about starting a garden?
When someone tells me they want to start a community garden, I always stress the amount of work and commitment you must give to such a project. It ain’t easy some days! I tell them my advice is to come work with us and see what you’re getting into because it is a huge amount of work and responsibility. But also, I tell people growing food is growing money. Especially in these tough economic times, if you want to have a bit more spending power a pack of seeds doesn’t cost a whole lot of money.
You’re also a pro at using the SeedMoney platform by now, what tips do you have for people thinking about using SeedMoney?
The most effective way to raise money is share, share, and share! Over time we have built up a stable of generous folks who are always willing to help support what we do. A great story with compelling pictures of people interacting with the garden speaks volumes to what we are doing and what we want to achieve. Using your organization is very easy. It’s a very straight forward process, but at the same time I think you need to put a lot of effort into determining what you want to get out of this program. Does that make sense?
Yeah sure that makes sense. Would you say that it’s helpful to construct a story for your organization in order to attract attention?
Yeah, like you said. You start with this and you want to go where? How do you get from point A to point B? Now, we reach just a small group of people, really and truly. Our goal now is how do we extend that further. How do we reach more people? We’re all volunteers with limited time and energy. How do you get from just this to something that affects more people in a positive way without a lot of resources?
Do you have any parting words for the readers?
Remember a community garden is about everyone who lives in your town, city and county. Always strive to have members of your group that reflect all who live there.