By Ann Piccininni
Daily Herald correspondent
There’s a patch of land on Villa Park’s north side that may be thick this summer with leafy vegetable plants, bearing produce destined for residents’ dinner tables.
Plans for a new community garden, to be planted, farmed and harvested by residents, are moving forward, Village Manager Richard Keehner said.
Keehner said a house located on a village-owned quarter-acre parcel recently was demolished, making way for the planting of vegetables under the direction of the Grow Healthy Villa Park Coalition. The village is doing some soil testing to make sure the site is appropriate for a garden.
If the land gets a clean bill of health, he said, this year could mark the garden’s inaugural growing season at that location. An alternate site will be sought if the original site is not usable, he said.
Keehner said the idea is to have a place in the neighborhood where neighbors can grow elements of a healthy diet for themselves.
The garden is one of several programs launched by the coalition, formed in 2011. Coalition members include charities, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses.
Joanne Mitrenga is executive director of the Tri-Towns YMCA.
“I wrote a grant that gave us funding to convene the group,” she said. “We brought the group together.”
Mitrenga said the YMCA of the USA, the national organization that counts the Tri-Towns YMCA as one of its members, forms strategic partnerships to achieve its goals of youth development, healthy living and
“That’s the Y’s mission. These are our areas of focus,” she said.
The YMCA of the USA joined with the Centers for Disease Control to offer grant funding to local organizations for the purpose of promoting healthy lifestyle choices, she said.
Tri-Towns, which serves as the fiscal agent for the Grow Healthy Villa Park Coalition, also has received financial support for the program from other charitable organizations focused on encouraging healthy choices, she said. In the past year, the coalition has invested $21,407 in grant funds in strategies intended to improve health.
The coalition already has awarded a $567 grant to a local agency for the planting of small, raised gardens, Mitrenga said. Part of the yield has benefited “First Things First,” a program aimed at caring for young children through the Outreach House in Lombard.
Starting a community garden plot seemed like a natural way to help provide local residents with good, healthy food, she said.
“Villa Park is the ‘Garden Village,'” Mitrenga said. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we engaged everybody around the community in a community garden.'”
Rae Rupp-Srch, immediate past president of the Tri-Towns executive board of directors and former Villa Park village president, is chairwoman of the coalition.
“It really is to work with the community, get all phases of the community together to create a healthy lifestyle, not only for kids, but for the adults,” Rupp-Srch said.
A victory in the coalition’s win column thus far, said Rupp-Srch, is the installation of refrigeration units at several area food pantries.
“We managed to provide refrigerators and freezers for some of the food pantries so they can provide healthier selections,” she said.
“This way they can carry low-fat milk and eggs and poultry,” said Mitrenga.
Rupp-Srch said cooking classes emphasizing healthy eating have been hosted by the Villa Park Public Library and the Villa Park Parks and Recreation Department.
“We’ve taught participants the benefits of label-reading to know the ingredients of the different recipes they make,” she said. “The reviews on that from the participants was really quite good.”
More cooking classes led by dietitians are coming up at the library, said Sandra Hill, the library’s executive director. Tentative plans also are in the works for gardening classes. And, she said, the Villa Park Public Library now maintains a “seed library.”
“We have seeds available to people who attend classes. They learn about the seeds and how to harvest the seeds,” Hill said.
So, when their growing season is over, those growers bring the new crop of seeds back to the library for the next season’s gardeners, she said.
The library also is creating “little free libraries” — small collections of donated how-to materials that work like a community book exchange — at gardening sites and recreation sites, she said.
Mitrenga said the library has been offering residents instruction in how to grow container gardens.
“Whatever we can do to promote health in the community, we’re happy to help,” Hill said.
Grow Healthy recently installed a water fountain in Rotary Park, said Keehner, in an effort to accommodate hikers and cyclists who use the nearby Illinois Prairie Path and the Great Western Trail and thereby encourage exercise.
Dog-walkers will find an added incentive to bring their four-legged friends along.
“There’s a little dish at the bottom where the pets can get their supply, too,” said Rupp-Srch.
Rupp-Srch said Villa Park Elementary District 45, Salt Creek School District 48 and DuPage High School District 88 are all part of the coalition.
School cafeterias have made some modifications, she said, since Grow Healthy started its push.
“Their menus have changed, so they’re making healthier choices,” Rupp-Srch said. “We’re trying to make this a coordinated effort.”