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Every now and then, a good idea succeeds. Opelika Grows (O Grows) is one of those good ideas — one that has brought together a community to share food, build knowledge and grow relationships. Through the years, this idea has flourished into a local food project where the theoretical meets the practical and people examine the root causes of food insecurity, nurture their neighborhoods and change lives.

From the beginning, O Grows in Opelika, Alabama, has focused on community, partnership and philanthropy — people helping people. Located at the intersection of two of the five most food insecure areas in Lee County, the project provides more than healthy food, it gives a community hope. In fact, thousands of people and families have found food, resources, education or other support at O Grows during the past year alone.

That’s the story of O Grows. And it all began more than 12 years ago when Sean Forbes planted a garden at his son’s school.

“My son was upset when he came home from school one day. He was sad that his first-grade class only spent five minutes outside that day,” he said. “We were already gardening together at home so that gave us an idea.”

Forbes, a professor of educational psychology in Auburn’s College of Education and the executive director of O Grows, partnered with his son’s school to establish the first of several garden programs — and the rest is agricultural history.

Today, O Grows demonstrates Auburn’s three pillars of research, instruction and outreach and has grown into a university-community food project with a 24/7, 365-days-a-year community garden and a state-certified farmers market — the only direct-to-consumer farmers market in Opelika. It also offers a summer market, youth and adult educational programs, demonstration workshops, and more.

Through these initiatives, O Grows provides experiential learning for Auburn’s teacher education students, practical instruction for elementary school students along with food and resources for families, and real-world research into a variety of issues from project-based learning to the impact of community partnerships on food insecurity.

“Our mission has adapted over the years,” Forbes said. “Initially, it was about giving local children experiential education, but today we know our curriculum does even more than educate, it’s also a proxy for what people have been doing since the beginning of time — building community. That can’t be manufactured or forced, but out here, it happens every day.”

Community relationships

Tony Amerson, a captain in the Opelika Police Department, works his plot in the O Grows community garden regularly. He’s the first to say he has an unconventional approach to his gardening.
“The secret to my tomatoes,” he confides with a smile. “I put fish under them.”
Amerson laughs as he shares other tips he describes as “granddad knowledge” handed down to him.
“This is what we have to share with the next generation — knowledge,” he said. “Being here, being present, with our hands in the dirt, this is where the conversations happen. This is how I’m able to share with kids about things like the importance of planning for their financial future — because we’re out here together, having conversations.”
Like many involved with O Grows, Amerson gives away most of the food he grows. He supports elderly in the community, families in the housing authority and others.
“It’s important to me to give, especially as a police officer,” he said. “Now when I see people on the streets and in the neighborhoods, they know me. That’s the best part of O Grows.”
The beauty of a program like this is found in the relationships it builds. For Amerson and Forbes, this is the ‘why.’
“Once you get the ‘why,’ you’re hooked,” Forbes said. “Agriculture is just the vehicle, but the message is so much more.”

A philanthropy-fueled partnership

 O Grows is a partnership between Auburn University, the City of Opelika, Opelika City Schools and Envision Opelika — and others who believe in its purpose and provide vital funding. Gifts from the Auburn Family have helped O Grows increase food production and hire local high school students.
“I’m so grateful for the support O Grows has received all these years. We’ve had people and organizations believe in us from the very beginning,” Forbes said. “I think about what we’ve been able to accomplish with no full-time staff and a shoestring budget. Just imagine what we could do with more.”
He has imagined and hopes the Auburn Family will share his vision. Philanthropy will be a game changer for the future of O Grows.
“I want O Grows to remain relevant and adaptive to the needs of our community,” he said. “And that can only happen through sustainable community engagement.”

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