Paige Dansberger works at the Three Oaks homeless shelter in Lexington Park. Her current internship evolved from volunteer work that started in late March. Now her time there revolves around the small, 16’ by 20’ garden she helped build on its property. Her internship will last for 11 weeks this summer, and on her days there she helps to keep the tomato, pepper, eggplant, and lettuce plants in good health and organize what will be planted when and where. But this small garden has larger implications. The broad questions her time at Three Oaks has led her to contemplate could be turned into a St. Mary’s Project, which she is planning to start research for under the mentorship of Barry Muchnick, assistant professor of environmental studies. The questions that form the baseline of what she is considering is how food, wellness, community and the self fit together, and the implications of those interactions. Food security is at the forefront of those considerations.
Her internship at Three Oaks has given her the space to consider how exposing the community there to a garden could empower them with choices they wouldn’t have otherwise. Just over five minutes away from the shelter is the Good Samaritan Church and St. Mary’s Caring Soup Kitchen. There are a variety of options for meals at the church, but they’re limited by factors such as availability and may not reflect a person’s cultural heritage or personal preference. Here, the garden helps people to regain an element of control. And it’s good for people to have responsibility, Dansberger notes, caring for the garden helps bolster physical and mental health. It is a piece of the puzzle, the beginning to illustrating how healthy food systems are important to a person’s livelihood. How this responsibility and an increased access to choice can impact people is one of the things she’s sought to observe and take into account. And by introducing them to the issue, she can then lead them to solutions that can positively impact their lives. She can show them different places that are available to shop for food, like the local farmers market. But there are other barriers the community here may face; they may be bound by which providers are equipped to take SNAP/EBT, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with Electronic Benefits Transfer. And there are other barriers, including the availability of public transport. Residents also only have access to refrigeration and a microwave, not a full service kitchen.
The issue of food security is one close to many people in the Lexington Park area. The kitchen gets a large amount of food from the local Food Lion, which may be due to close after a recent merger with another grocery chain. Besides the impact to the soup kitchen itself, if the shop were to close the citizens of the surrounding community would become residents of a food desert, an area marked by low or severely limited access to grocery stores or other providers of affordable fresh food. Commissioner Todd Morgan has called the possible loss of the grocery store a concern, “We are watching this thing very closely.” In an OpEd for the Enterprise, Dansberger spoke about her interest in food security and the need for the community to take a proactive approach in dealing with the situation at hand. While it certainly cannot be mandated that this store remain open, Dansberger believes that as a community we should not wait to see how the closing might affect an already marginalized community. We should, instead, focus on finding stable solutions. “St. Mary’s County cannot afford to let our social and economic stability rely on the decisions of foreign corporations,” Dansberger wrote.
Part of her research involves looking at how other communities have solved issues surrounding limited access to food. Her goal is taking that national focus and applying it to our own community, picking apart what worked and didn’t work, why, and how she can bring that knowledge back to our community and use it to improve access to food here, in St. Mary’s County, especially for the marginalized community she has worked so closely with. “Fighting for the current grocery store to remain open, exploring alternate groceries to be brought in in place of Food Lion, securing grants to help keep the store operational, and creating a community farmer’s market in St. Mary’s Square are all solutions worth being explored.” The garden at Three Oaks is part of that initiative.
Through her time working with the community she’s learned a number of things, and in seeking solutions to issues of food security there’s one note that stands out. As she has researched what other communities have done to address food deserts she’s found that volunteers can’t go in with assumptions about what a community needs. Not every community needs a garden. She found one area which had attempted to start one, only for it to fall into disrepair. The reason behind its downfall were citizens who did not feel the need to participate in its upkeep, which stemmed from the fact that they already had access to enough fresh fruit and vegetables. Not every community’s needs are the same, Dansberger knows this. You have to know the community. The end goal of her project is to produce a community assessment to report what exactly our own area needs to maintain its ability to access fresh foods, and then to implement a solution. She is looking at the issue from a national perspective, and using it to implement local measures.
Dansberger doesn’t have it all figured out yet. As she works through her internship and begins her St. Mary’s Project, she will work to put together all of the questions and ideas brought up during her time working in the community and with Three Oaks. She does know, however, that she wants to also begin looking at the number of local children who are in free or reduced lunch programs and the number of citizens who visit the soup kitchen. And what other programs are out there to help alleviate the effects of food deserts and help people become food secure? The ideas that form the framework of her project are continually evolving as research continues.
Dansberger is an environmental studies major with a religion minor, a mother of two and recently divorced. She’s a transfer student from the local community college and is now a junior here at St. Mary’s. She says her first semester here was definitely difficult, but that she thinks she brings life experience to the classroom. Her ex-husband had a farm and a dream to utilize more sustainable practices. He was her introduction to the project that is now growing in her mind. What first started as an interest in agriculture and food production was later tied to self and wellness as she raised kids, later evolving into an interest in environmental justice expressed through food security, which circled back around to an interest in food. She wonders if this project will continue past the completion of her St. Mary’s Project and into the future.