Engineers bring harvest to local food desert

Posted: May 6, 2019

An idea to plant sustainable gardens in a local food desert has taken root thanks to the innovative work of some Buckeye engineers.

John Schrock and Ohio State students planting gardens
John Schrock (gray hat, center) and Ohio State engineering students help build raised gardens in the King Lincoln District.

Spearheaded by John Schrock, a senior lecturer in Ohio State’s Department of Engineering Education (EED), Neighbors Grow is a collaborative effort to help households grow thriving food gardens in the King Lincoln District, an underserved neighborhood located in East Columbus. After working with local community leaders on a separate project, Schrock started thinking about how to increase the King Lincoln community’s access to affordable and nutritious food. With that, the idea for Neighbors Grow was planted.

“I thought of myself and others who want gardens in our backyards, but why don’t we have them? And it’s similar to why we don’t do other things in life: it comes down to money, time and knowledge,” said Schrock. “So if there are people who want to have access to healthy food and they’re excited about or open to growing it themselves, let’s help them overcome these barriers.”

To cover the money, Schrock applied for and won a community grant from Columbus SOUP in August 2017, which would help purchase materials. Additional supplies such as soil and rain barrels were contributed by local businesses. To address the time, he recruited student volunteers from Ohio State’s College of Engineering and Columbus College of Art and Design to help clean and build 400 square feet of raised garden beds. He also offered his own gardening skills by helping families plan their gardens and plant their seeds. Finally, to overcome the knowledge barrier, he partnered with a literacy nonprofit and linked interested members with their urban farming classes.

John Schrock

The initial installment of Neighbors Grow started with five households and has continued to sprout. Schrock and his student volunteers have constructed similar raised beds for several community gardens in the neighborhood, one of which helps source food for a local vegan restaurant. Whatever food from the garden isn’t sourced is donated to people within the community. Not only does it help a local business, it gets people talking.

“It’s a good conversation starter,” said Schrock. “I’ll be over there pulling weeds or watering the plants and people stop and ask me about it and we start talking about food.”

Plans are to continue the cycle of building beds in the fall and planting in the spring. While the focus primarily has been on helping the initial cohort of families be successful in their own backyards, Schrock would like to see the program expand to other homes and eventually other neighborhoods.

He said if more people can grow food at home, they will be more likely to engage in community gardens and bigger conversations about food sourcing.

“If you wake up in the morning, look out your back window and you have a garden, it builds ownership. It makes it more accessible, not just the food itself but being able to actually interact with it,” said Schrock. “You learn more by doing. You have more confidence to go out in your yard and try things. The whole idea was once you have a core group of neighbors who have their first gardens, they can help other households implement gardens.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |