MILBRIDGE — Chris Kuhni, the founder and director of the Women’s Health Resource Library, knows firsthand the struggles many Washington County residents have long faced in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
For nearly two decades, Kuhni has worked as a nurse practitioner at Milbridge Medical Center, where she has become all too familiar with the prevalence of various preventable illnesses that plague her community.
Every day she’d hear the same sentiment from her patients: “I can’t afford to eat the way I know I should.”
“There is just so much poverty in the area,” Kuhni said. “When you’re dealing with people who have significant health issues, it’s the most fundamental things that are impacting their lives.”
One of those main factors, Kuhni said, is diet.
To provide her community with access to nutritious foods, Kuhni proposed to WHRL board members a unique gardening program inspired by the English town of Todmorden. The project — “Incredible Edible Milbridge” — involved planting gardens around town and inviting anyone to help themselves to the fresh produce.
“We’re always looking for different projects to improve the health of the community,” Kuhni said. “This just seemed like the perfect activity.”
Two years ago, this idealistic concept became a reality in Milbridge. Some 10 veteran gardeners volunteered to install and tend to gardens throughout the growing season, which typically lasts from May to September.
It seemed too good to be true at first. A buzz of both excitement and confusion surrounded these new gardens. Residents began asking: “Who is this for — the needy and elderly?”
“If you eat, you’re in,” Pam Dyer Stewart said. “It’s like we’re garden elves, bringing good cheer.”
This season, the number of gardens more than doubled from eight to 19 as the greater Milbridge community grew more involved with the project.
Local businesses began donating seedlings and lumber to build raised beds. They also welcomed the establishment of gardens on their property. Some water the produce and tend to the gardens.
“We want to support them and bring them along, but we don’t want them to feel burdened,” Dyer Stewart said. “In each case, we’re individualizing how we turn it over to businesses in a way that works for them.”
The library also offers garden tours and workshops for learning how to grow a successful garden.
“If you don’t know where your food comes from and if you don’t watch it grow, you can’t understand what goes into the process,” WHRL Communications Coordinator Susan Jordan Bennett said. “For a lot of people, cooking means opening a box.”
While the program is helping bridge the disconnect between people and their food, it also is providing residents with opportunities to make wise, healthy decisions.
Kuhni said a woman recently told her the project had “changed her life.”
“I’m able to eat well,” the woman told her. “I don’t have to swallow my pride and go to the food pantry.”
In addition, Kuhni has seen improvements in the lives of her patients, who have struggled with obesity, diabetes or other common health issues.
This summer, one of Kuhni’s patients expressed frustration, saying, “I can’t afford to buy fresh vegetables,” she said.
This time, Kuhni could finally offer a solution. “Let’s go,” she responded.”
The pair walked outside to one of the gardens and plucked vegetables from the bed of greens.
“Instead of a prescription, she left with a carton of tomatoes,” Kuhni said. “People are now getting outdoors and eating better while also engaging with their community.
“We can do more with more support,” Dyer Stewart said. “We’re thinking big.”
To contribute produce or start a garden, call 546-7677 and visit “Incredible Edible Milbridge,” on the web at http://www.whrl.org/.