Nacir Groce and his aunt Tiffany Groce harvest kale at the Urban GEMS indoor farm on Parsons Avenue. Credit: Lydia Gingerich | Lantern Reporter

While researching gun violence in the south side of Columbus, Deanna Wilkinson became overwhelmed and depressed, but she found healing in an unexpected activity: indoor gardening.

“The sound and the light, and growing something and being responsible for it — it just made me feel better. And it gave me the idea that if it helps me, maybe it can help the community,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson, a professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State, started Urban GEMS (Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability) in 2015 to bring restoration to the neighborhoods with high crime and murder rates she had been researching.

She placed three indoor growing towers in the basement of Family Missionary Baptist Church and invited youth from the community to join her in growing, harvesting and eating the plants.

In the years since, Wilkinson and her team have expanded the program to include plant towers at Millenium Community School, the Center for African Studies at Ohio State and an indoor farm on Parsons Avenue. Currently there are more than 60 young people learning to plant, sustain and consume crops through Urban GEMS.

Tiffany Groce, Urban GEMS project coordinator, said she is impressed by the many changes she has seen in the south side community since the beginning of the program.

“We have kids that have been involved with the program from the beginning. So they may have started out as 12-year-olds and now they’re 15-year-olds. If they weren’t involved in our different programs that we have going on, where would a typical 15-year-old be?” Groce said.

Urban GEMS provides an alternative not only for violence, but also food insecurity. Groce said many of the participants come from households that rarely serve fresh fruits or vegetables.

“They will eat it if it’s provided for them but a lot of times it’s just not provided for them. In these inner city neighborhoods it’s just really expensive to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, especially if you are feeding a family of five or six,” Groce said.

Her 11-year-old nephew Nasir Groce spends most of his time after school with Urban GEMS. He said his favorite part is “growing the plants and just taking them home and eating them and learning how to eat healthy.”

As a professor at Ohio State, Wilkinson brings awareness of the program to her students by taking them into participating communities.

“One thing that tends to be a challenge is that students don’t leave campus. A lot of the people that end up sticking with the projects have taken a class with me and are forced out of that comfort zone. Creating those opportunities for students is incredibly valuable but not logistically easy,” Wilkinson said.

Matondo Ngemba, a second-year in international studies, chose to get involved with Urban GEMS after reading the mission and vision of the organization. The values of community improvement and reaching out to marginalized communities aligned with her own.

While Ngemba studies international relations, she sees the importance of working locally. She said tackling global issues without dealing with local ones is “like eating an elephant by trying to fit the whole thing in your mouth. You have to take it piece by piece. That’s why I’m starting with Urban GEMS in the community and then expanding.”

Wilkinson is already measuring the success of this project and hopes that it can be replicated across the country.

“If I’m not doing this, I’m not as happy as when I am doing this, so you know it works. And I can see it from the kids, I can see it from the adults, and I’m trying to measure it with our evaluation,” she said. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to quantify every last thing that is happening but it’s turned into something great in a really short amount of time and it will only get better.”

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The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between The Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.