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A chat with the state Family Doctor of the Year

It was a pleasure talking with Dr. Andrew Symons, a University of Buffalo professor who practices in Tonawanda and lives in Williamsville, for tomorrow’s In the Field feature that will be published in WNY Refresh.

I could tell by his interesting background and passion for his work – we talked by phone for more than an hour – he is very deserving of the honor, which he will receive Saturday in Troy.

Here’s a bit more of what he told me:

"My youngest patient I haven't met yet because I do prenatal care. My oldest patient led a charmed life and had a charmed passing, in his bed, in his sleep, in his own home at the age of 102."

Here’s more of what he said about encouraging students to be family doctors:

"The ones that have a passion for it, an inkling for it, I have them come meet other family physicians. We have some funding to support student interests. We try to recruit family doctors who enjoy what they’re doing, and we encourage them to bring students into their practice. And when I have a student in my office, I always tell them, regardless of what kind of physician they’re going to be, I want them to be a good physician and enjoy what they’re doing.

"I think it’s important for them to understand what it’s like to come to a physician who’s your family doctor, what it’s like to know patients over time, what it’s like when I walk into a room, and I look on the counter and there’s that pomegranate candy that my patient whose my father’s age leaves on the counter. ... when I see the patient, my patient, whose husband passed away two weeks ago and we hug each other and there are tears and understanding what the meaning of that relationship is. I can go on and on. Understanding that I don’t have to start from scratch with a patient that I’ve known for five years. This is a marathon, and we’re in it together for the long haul.

"I try to remind students, 'You have to remember what you’re going into medicine for. If it’s to drive three Lexuses and you don’t think you can do it on family medicine salary, then do something else. If you really have a passion for surgery, be a surgeon and be a good one, but understand what it’s like to be a family doctor.’

"I also make them understand I lead a fine lifestyle and they can be an economic success and they don’t have to worry about it.

"Some of my best students I’ve written letters of recommendation for have not gone into family medicine and I’m fine with that. One of my best students is a radiologist, but when he was in my office, he was engaged with the patients, he was engaged with the staff. He asked questions. And I knew that when I picked up the phone and called a radiologist and needed to describe to that radiologist what my patient was feeling, and perhaps the CT scan could help explain it, I would hope that it would be that student because he does sense what it’s like to be that doctor, because he spent a month in my office."

Read more about Dr. Symons Saturday in Refresh.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

Buffalo steps up in latest national fitness ranking

Buffalo finds itself in the middle of the pack in the latest ranking of community fitness status among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.

The American College of Sport Medicine’s American Fitness Index places the Western New York region 23rd, just behind Atlanta and Providence, R.I., and just ahead of New York City and Philadelphia.

"Buffalo comes out pretty good in these kinds of surveys," said Philip L. Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo & Western New York, a nonprofit whose mission is to help make the region a healthier place to live.

Haberstro said he thinks that has lots to do with the region’s Olmsted parks, as well as Rails to Trails "linear parks" that include one in the Town of Tonawanda and an emerging one in North Buffalo.

The American College of Sport Medicine compared its sixth annual report, released today, to an annual physical or wellness exam. It evaluates prevention, chronic disease levels, health care access and community resources and policies that encourage healthy living.

Buffalo Niagara scored 53.2, out of 100 possible points, in the latest report, up two spots from last year, when it scored of 49.

Minneapolis-St. Paul ranked first for the third straight year, with a score of 76.4; Detroit and a host of Southern metro areas were in the bottom 10, with Oklahoma City, Okla., ranked last.

According to the report, Buffalo Niagara was 27th on "personal health indicators" related to health behaviors, chronic conditions and health care access and ranked 19th on "community/environmental indicators" that include parks, recreation, physical education options and primary health care workers.

"We have issued the American Fitness Index each year since 2008 to help health advocates and community leaders improve the quality of life in their hometowns," Walter Thompson, chairman of the AFI Advisory Board, said in a news release. "As urban areas attract more and more residents, it’s imperative for cities to create a built environment, fund amenities and form policies that get residents active and encourage healthy lifestyles."

The American College of Sport Medicine worked with the Indiana University School of Family Medicine and 26 health and physical activity experts on the methodology of the AFI data report.

Rankings were determined using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), the Trust for the Public Land City Park Facts and other scientific benchmarks.

The rankings, and scores:

1. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.: 78.2

2.  Washington, D.C.: 77.7

3.  Portland, Ore.: 69.8

4.  San Francisco: 68.7

5. Denver: 68.1

6. Boston: 67.1

7. Sacramento, Calif.: 66.8

8. Seattle: 66.7

9. Hartford, Conn.: 66.6

10. San Jose, Calif.: 66.4

11. Austin, Texas: 63.6

12. Salt Lake City, Utah:  62.5

13. Cincinnati, Ohio: 61.4

14.  San Diego, Calif.: 61.3

15. Raleigh, N.C.: 60.3

16. Pittsburgh: 59.9

17. Baltimore: 59.5

18. Virginia Beach, Va.: 58.3

19. Cleveland: 55.1

20. Richmond, Va.: 55.1

21. Atlanta: 53.6

22. Providence, R.I.: 53.5

23: Buffalo: 53.2

24. New York: 52.1

25. Philadelphia: 51.2

26. Milwaukee, Wis.: 51.2

27. Chicago: 50.8

28. Kansas City, Mo.: 50.4

29. Los Angeles: 48.3

30. Columbus, Ohio: 48.2

31. St. Louis: 47.1

32. Nashville, Tenn.: 44.5

33. Phoenix: 44

34. Orlando: 42.5

35. Riverside, Calif.: 42.5

36. Charlotte, N.C.: 42.2

37. Jacksonville, Fla.: 41.8

38. New Orleans: 41.6

39. Las Vegas: 41.6

40. Tampa, Fla.: 40.1

41. Birmingham, Ala.: 39

42. Miami: 38.4

43. Houston: 38.3

44. Dallas: 37.4

45.  Indianapolis, Ind.: 36.8

46. Memphis, Tenn.: 36

47. Louisville, Ky.: 35.2

48. San Antonio, Texas: 35.1

49. Detroit: 33.6

50. Oklahoma City, Okla.: 31.2

• For a complete list of Buffalo’s areas of excellence and improvement priorities, plus a breakdown of the components that helped make up its score, click here and download the metro area report.

Find out how you can help boost your personal wellness by reading about outdoor fitness opportunities in the region Saturday in WNY Refresh in The Buffalo News.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

Former health commissioner talks diabetes, obesity

While reporting the story in today’s Buffalo News on how the Seneca Nation of Indians is addressing diabetes among its people, I also found the following information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health that wasworth sharing:

• More than 80 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight.

• People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, high levels of blood fats, and LDL cholesterol, all risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

• In 2010, African-Americans were 70 percent less likely to engage in active physical activity than whites.

• Deaths from heart disease and stroke are almost twice the rate for African-Americans as compared to whites.

• African-American adults are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.

• African-American adults are 60 percent more likely to have a stroke than white adults.

While these statistics are alarming, the reality is that a growing number of Americans have gotten fatter during the last generation.

I talked with Dr. Anthony Billittier for today’s story because he’s the chairman of the Seneca Health Commission. In the volunteer post, he oversees the Seneca health system with a host of other health professionals.

Billittier became Dean of the School of Health Professions at D’Youville College after serving as health commissioner under former County Executives Joel Giambra and Chris Collins, and we talked about obesity and diet in broad, public health terms.

Here’s more of what he had to say:

The Senecas have begun a "Community Health Assessment" to get a better sense of the health challenges and needs of the nation.

Billittier said he was unsure why the rate of diabetes on the nation is higher than in the general public, or why diabetes and obesity rates are growing across all demographics. He does have his suspicions, however.

"I have to believe in general that nationwide our problem with obesity is in part lack of exercise, but I think the bigger part is diet. I really believe diet is the key going forward and obviously there’s behavior wrapped around that. We’ve got to get people to eat right.

"I think a lot of it’s portion control...,” he added. “If we could control our portions, that would go a long way to help."

He said he Americans tend to eat more while dining out, and that part of our American way of thinking doesn’t serve us well at the dining table.

"We live in a country where more is better," Billittier said. “It doesn’t matter what the issue is – a bigger house, more money, more expensive car, more medicine, more health care, more shots. The same is true for food, so who’s going to back to a restaurant that doesn’t give you more food?"

He talked about one of his daughters making a smart decision during a recent family dinner out when she asked for a to-go container as soon as she got her dinner, and put half of it away for another day.

He also said, "We live for today in America and that’s why it’s hard to sell wellness to people" long-term. It’s easier for a fast-food franchise to sell something that tastes good, because your gratification is today. The competition there is sort of the public health approach that is trying to sell you something that doesn’t taste good, feel good, but will make you better long-term. We don’t really care as much about tomorrow as we should.

"We need a culture change that more is not necessarily better in every aspect of life and that’s especially true of eating."

He called overeating a societal problem that will have to be fixed culturally, and, he said, it may be something that comes down to dollars and sense.

"The biggest motivator, whether we like it or not, is money," he said. To this point, government has paid for health care and in the future, he predicts, the public will pay more.

"As soon as people start to see a direct relationship between unhealthy behaviors and money in their pocket, I think that will help change behaviors," he said. "Everybody has to have skin in the game and up until now, patients haven’t had skin in the game."

One thing Billittier said will help is if "people can learn how to make good tasting, healthy food." Recipe sharing, fresh produce and education "I think will help make an impact," he said.

And the bottom line:

"Healthy food,” Billittier said, “is much better medicine than insulin and oral diabetic agents any day."

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

Food for thought on plant extinction – and heirloom veggies

Has survival of the fittest food plants raised the prospect that a bacterial pestilence could ruin the world’s food supply?

Maybe, according to a story in National Geographic published in the summer of 2011.

Here’s one of the striking paragraphs in the story:

"Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We’ve been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat."

To read the entire story, click here.

Joe Foegen, a supervisor in the merchandising department at the Lexington Co-operative Market, and Heather Lazickas, promotions and education coordinator for the Elmwood Avenue health food co-op, talked about this during an interview with me earlier this week.

"This comes back to the corporatization of agriculture," Foegen said. "Look at Monsanto nowadays, which patents seeds. Farmers aren’t even allowed to save [those] seeds nowadays or else they’re sued."

The two recommended the documentary film "Food Inc.," for those interested in exploring the topic.

We talked about how today’s standard wheat has been modified and is much different than the wheat of our grandparents’ generation.

"That’s why they say there’s so much gluten intolerance now, because it’s not the wheat that it was," Foegen said.

A book called "Wheat Belly," written by a cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, explores this in more detail – and a dispute has given rise in the nutrition community as a result. Most nutritionists still insist that a balanced diet include whole or multi-grain foods, but concern is growing about so-called "genetically modified organisms," or GMOs, in the world’s food supply.

Lazickas cautions that there are probably only about a dozen genetically modified plants that consumers can buy in most stores. But they are big ones, and include corn and soybeans.

GMOs are mostly in processed foods – but don’t expect to find their names on most labels of foods that contain them, after the U.S. Senate voted this week  not to require they be listed in the Farm Bill before Congress.

Whatever you believe about GMOs, cross-breeding and mass farm production has dramatically changed the world food supply, the co-op staffers said.

Take bananas.

"The bananas we eat now are not the bananas people ate 20, 30 years ago, and [scientists] say they won’t be the bananas we eat seven, eight years from now," Lazickas said.

Cavendish is the variety preferred across the globe.

"They’ve been bred so they can be picked while they’re still green and they can ship it to us. That’s what it all comes down to, the ability to harvest and ship long distances."

A disease has begun to damage the Cavendish trees. Infected trees still grow, but bear far less fruit.

Another variety of bananas will be used to replace the Cavendish, one that hopefully will be able to resist the disease that’s damaging the preferred variety, Foegen said.

Which brings us back to heirloom vegetables, the subject of my story today in WNY Refresh.

An important point experts made with me is that traditional plants are great, but that many cross-bred hybrids are wonderful, too.

We wouldn’t have the nectarine without them, and many plants and veggies have been cross-bred to resist the kinds of pests that endanger the Cavendish banana.

Like wine varietals, heirlooms are not the end all and be all for everyone.

"There’s nothing wrong with the conventionals," said Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager at Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island St., on the city’s West Side. "Most of them are tried and true producers. If you’re looking to feed your family and you’re looking for basics, there are still delicious conventionals that will produce well for you.

"You have your meat and potato eaters. The conventionals are for those who are used to just buying from the supermarkets."

Some things I didn’t have room in the story for but thought worth sharing:

• Urban Roots is in a West Side in a neighborhood known for its new immigrants.

"People come for the Thai green eggplant [heirloom]. Maybe there’s a little bit of a language barrier," clerk Adrianna Zullich said, but customers can describe the look and taste of the plant so that employees know what it is.

• There’s a local feel to heirlooms.

"An heirloom is something that stays local," Foegen said, "and the beauty of heirlooms is when you get heirloom seeds, unlike hybrid seeds – let’s use the tomato as an example – that real red roma that you see, that’s been bred to travel, where an heirloom roma can adapt to whatever environment where it’s growing. So if you grow it in Western New York, and you save the seeds and plant them the next year, each year it’s going to get stronger and stronger and more adapted to this area, so the flavor is going to become more enhanced...

"I grew chocolate tomatoes last year, that’s what they’re called because they have a brownish color. Oh my God, they’re so good!"

Those I spoke with for the story convinced me to plant some heirlooms in a new raised bed garden in the coming days.

Feel free to share some of your garden tips – conventional or otherwise – on this blog.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

Food for thought on plant extinction and heirloom veggies

Has survival of the fittest food plants raised the prospect that a bacterial pestilence could ruin the world’s food supply?

Maybe, according to a story in National Geographic published in the summer of 2011.

Here’s one of the striking paragraphs in the story:

"Most of us in the well-fed world give little thought to where our food comes from or how it’s grown. We steer our shopping carts down supermarket aisles without realizing that the apparent bounty is a shiny stage set held up by increasingly shaky scaffolding. We’ve been hearing for some time about the loss of flora and fauna in our rain forests. Very little, by contrast, is being said or done about the parallel erosion in the genetic diversity of the foods we eat."

To read the entire story, click here.

Joe Foegen, a supervisor in the merchandising department at the Lexington Co-operative Market, and Heather Lazickas, promotions and education coordinator for the Elmwood Avenue health food co-op, talked about this during an interview with me earlier this week for today's WNY Refresh story on heirloom vegetables.

"This comes back to the corporatization of agriculture," Foegen said. "Look at Monsanto nowadays, which patents seeds. Farmers aren’t even allowed to save [those] seeds nowadays or else they’re sued."

The two recommended the documentary film "Food Inc.," for those interested in exploring the topic.

We talked about how today’s standard wheat has been modified and is much different than the wheat of our grandparents’ generation.

"That’s why they say there’s so much gluten intolerance now, because it’s not the wheat that it was," Foegen said.

A book called "Wheat Belly," written by a cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, explores this in more detail – and a dispute has given rise in the nutrition community as a result. Most nutritionists still insist that a balanced diet include whole or multi-grain foods, but concern is growing about so-called "genetically modified organisms," or GMOs, in the world’s food supply.

Lazickas cautions that there are probably only about a dozen genetically modified plants that consumers can buy in most stores. But they are big ones, and include corn and soybeans.

GMOs are mostly in processed foods – but don’t expect to find their names on most labels of foods that contain them, after the U.S. Senate voted this week  not to require they be listed. They turned down an amendment by a 3-1 margin in the Farm Bill before Congress.

Whatever you believe about GMOs, cross-breeding and mass farm production has dramatically changed the world food supply, the co-op staffers said.

Take bananas.

"The bananas we eat now are not the bananas people ate 20, 30 years ago, and [scientists] say they won’t be the bananas we eat seven, eight years from now," Lazickas said.

Cavendish is the variety preferred across the globe.

"They’ve been bred so they can be picked while they’re still green and they can ship it to us. That’s what it all comes down to, the ability to harvest and ship long distances."

A disease has begun to damage Cavendish trees. Infected trees still grow, but bear far less fruit.

Another variety of bananas will be used to replace the Cavendish, one that hopefully will be able to resist the disease that’s damaging the preferred variety, Foegen said.

Which brings us back to heirloom vegetables, the subject of my story today in WNY Refresh.

An important point experts made with me is that traditional plants are great, but that many cross-bred hybrids are wonderful, too.

We wouldn’t have the nectarine without them, and many plants and veggies have been cross-bred to resist the kinds of pests that endanger the Cavendish banana.

Like wine varietals, heirlooms are not the end all and be all for everyone.

"There’s nothing wrong with the conventionals," said Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager at Urban Roots, 428 Rhode Island St., on the city’s West Side. "Most of them are tried and true producers. If you’re looking to feed your family and you’re looking for basics, there are still delicious conventionals that will produce well for you.

"You have your meat and potato eaters. The conventionals are for those who are used to just buying from the supermarkets."

Some things I didn’t have room in the story for but thought worth sharing:

• Urban Roots is in a West Side in a neighborhood known for its new immigrants.

"People come for the Thai green eggplant [heirloom]. Maybe there’s a little bit of a language barrier," clerk Adrianna Zullich said, but customers can describe the look and taste of the plant so that employees know what it is.

• There’s a local feel to heirlooms.

"An heirloom is something that stays local," Foegen said, "and the beauty of heirlooms is when you get heirloom seeds, unlike hybrid seeds – let’s use the tomato as an example – that real red roma that you see, that’s been bred to travel, where an heirloom roma can adapt to whatever environment where it’s growing. So if you grow it in Western New York, and you save the seeds and plant them the next year, each year it’s going to get stronger and stronger and more adapted to this area, so the flavor is going to become more enhanced...

"I grew chocolate tomatoes last year, that’s what they’re called because they have a brownish color. Oh my God, they’re so good!"

Those I spoke with for the story convinced me to plant some heirlooms in a new raised bed garden in the coming days.

Feel free to share some of your garden tips – conventional or otherwise – on this blog.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

Thoughts on running vs. walking

Allen James wasn’t surprised to learn about a new study that suggests brisk walking likely has more benefits than running. He’s seen those results play out on the world’s biggest athletic stage.

James, 49, of Sanborn, competed as an Olympic racewalker in 1992 in Barcelona and four years later in Atlanta. See how he did, and what he eats, today in WNY Refresh.

"The average lifespan at that elite level is maybe four or five years for a marathoner. The walkers, we’ve had dozens of them, their careers spanned three or four Olympics.

"The marathon is going to break down your body just because of the impact, whereas with walking, though it looks more peculiar, it’s much more efficient and less impacting on the body. Your bones and your joints aren’t feeling the weight of the impact every time.

"There’s fewer injuries, there’s less everything from walking, so long-term, you’re going to have more benefit from walking."

James, a Seattle native, moved to Western New York 10 years ago to work as State Parks spokesman for the Buffalo-Niagara region. Since 2008, he has sold scoreboards and sports equipment for Toth’s Sports. The Tonawanda City School District is among his clients.

He tends to eat pretty well – and walk up to 40 miles every week – but does admit to a weakness for pizza and chicken wings, generally about once a week.

"Buffalo has the best pizza around," he told me. "I think it’s better than Chicago or New York."

What did I tell him?

"You certainly have turned into a Buffalonian."

See the results of the recent walking vs. running study – and local walking events this summer here.

– Scott Scanlon

Buffalo’s Creative Class adds a new member

Jared Callahan, who just started his new business, City of Light Fitness, at Canalside, is thinking about a lot more than a stand-up paddle boarding gig along the Buffalo River.

That’s just a launching point for much bigger ideas the 28-year-old Amherst native has been hatching during the sleepy winter months.

He’s met with Robert G. Shibley, the dean of the University at Buffalo’s Architecture and Planning School.; Philip L. Haberstro, director of the nonprofit Buffalo Wellness Institute; and some of the leaders at the Old First Ward Community Center, a short paddle up the river from BFLO Harbor Kayak, where Callahan has set up shop.

"I wanted to try to reach out to people with similar interests," Callahan told me last week while I was reporting a story for today’s WNY Refresh. Wellness programs and "the environmental aspect is something I really wanted to push for."

Callahan’s dreams include a wellness program, revamped weight room and, maybe, boxing lessons at the community center. And maybe more than that.

"This idea came from Chicago and the Gary Comer Youth Center," Callahan said. "He’s got Land’s End, so he’s got quite a bit of money. He used to do sailing, so he’s really big on sailing and outdoors. He’s from Chicago, so that’s part of giving back to his community he started this youth center.

"There’s social services for getting kids job and schooling. They have an urban garden set up to teach kids about science and the environment and water use. And there are other [similar] facilities. There’s one in Tennessee that’s got a bike shop, kind of like we have with GObike Buffalo.

Shibley helped develop Gary Kolmer center, Callahan said.

Callahan also plans to talk with Buffalo Riverkeeper to connect an event to the waterfront.

"They’ve done an amazing job at really cleaning up the waterways," he said.

The exuberance shouldn’t be a surprise, considering Callahan’s background.

My freshman year, I was at St. Bonaventure for philosophy and religion, but since I was in grade school I wanted to do marine science, and that was because of my interest in surfing,” he said. “I have family in Wilmington, North Carolina and my uncle introduced me to surfing. I fell in love with it, so I transferred to UNC Wilmington right on the Atlantic  Coast. I got my degree in biology with a concentration in marine science. I just love being outside, wanting to be on the ocean. After that, I got an internship on a little barrier
island off the coast called the Bald Head Island Conservancy and we did a sea turtle protection program...

“From there, I ended up working in Dutch Harbor, Alaska on the fishing boats. I was working for a private contractor for the National Marine Fisheries Service … for about half a year. It was an awesome experience, but you’re on a boat, not seeing a whole lot of light, not getting a whole lot of physical activity.

“I ended up going back to UNC Wilmington for a coral ecology program and went out to Curacao and we did some studies on the
coral reef. That was an amazing experience and a very stressful experience, but I realized I want nothing to do with research. I love being out on the water,but doing all the lab work wasn’t my thing. So I moved back to Buffalo.”

It looks like Buffalo’s “Creative Class” has a young, new, enthusiastic member, one who says he wants “people to start to really value the waterfront again as a recreational resource, to understand how important it really is ecologically, environmentally. ... So that’s the goal,” he added, “conservation, social.”

He also has to have a practical side.

“The fitness part is hopefully what brings the money in,” he told me. “You’ve got to make a living and of course, this is a joy. If I can make a living coming out here and paddling with people and with fitness, that’s great.”

City of Light Fitness is near Clinton’s Dish at Canalside. To sign up for an introductory class like the one I took last week – miraculously, I didn’t fall into the 50-degree river – visit cityoflightfitness.com.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

New support group to aid burn victims, families

Highland Hose volunteer firefighter Jean Cosenza, of Derby, was badly burned in a grease fire in 2010.

She spent a week in the burn unit at Erie County Medical Center and five more weeks convalescing at home with the daily help of a home care nurse.

"As a counselor, I knew the importance of seeking  support after such a traumatic event," she said. "There was nothing available in the Buffalo area."

That will change Thursday, when Cosenza starts what is believed to be the first burn survivor support group in Western New York. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. on the second floor of ECMC 7-8, 462 Grider St., and is designed to help adult burn survivors, as well as their caregivers and families.

She also has agreed to offer peer support in the burn unit as needed.

Cosenza turned to an online burn survivor support group after she was injured, and she attended one of the group’s burn conferences last year.

"Unfortunately, there are burns of all types and severities in the Buffalo area but not much for support and advocacy," she said. "I wanted to make a change and provide for others in a way that the online community has provided for me."

The new group will continue to meet at 7 p.m. the third Thursday of every month at ECMC.

For more information, call 570-8219 or email j.cosenza@live.com.

Grand Island plants a community garden this weekend

If you live on Grand Island, have $20 in your pocket and want to plant a garden with some of your neighbors this spring, the new Grand Island Community Garden program is just the spot for you.

The project, undertaken with help from the nonprofit Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, still has plots available at a 6-acre site at Ransom and Stoney Point roads.

Volunteer gardeners are encouraged to come out the site at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday during the holiday weekend and help the group build raised garden beds with donated wood and soil.

Grand Island High School students will tend to three raised beds as part of a school project this growing season. Several other community groups and individuals also plan to cultivate gardens, said John Drehs, president of GI Community Gardens.

The cost of a garden plot is $20 until June 1 and $30 after that. Plots vary in size and much of the produce grown will be offered for sale during a Saturday farmers market at the site.

Drehs still has some donated seeds available for gardeners who sign up soon, but they’re limited.

"We also have an area nursery about a half-mile down the road, so someone can go and buy potted plants to grow," he said.

For more information on plots or to volunteer for landscape work, call 601-5972, or visit the group's website.

– Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon

Digging deeper into Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo

Susannah Barton, the executive director of Grassroots Gardens of Buffalo, is the subject of our In the field feature in today’s WNY Refresh section in The Buffalo News.

Along with the questions that appear in the feature, I asked her other questions about the nuts and bolts of how the nonprofit helps community gardeners in the City of Buffalo.

Below are excerpts:

So how do these gardens get off the ground and when does planning start?

Typically, it’s a handful of people in a neighborhood. Oftentimes, a block club will form a committee, say their garden committee. And a good time to start planning a garden is summer and fall, before the next summer season. So they’ll come to us because maybe they saw a garden or know of a garden somewhat near them but not in walking distance, and they’ve identified a vacant lot ... and want to turn it into a productive community space.

So usually they come to us between November and the end of February. During that time, we hold some open houses and help people with some questions they might have on the application. And then applications are due at the end of February and then our staff and a committee on our board look at the potential sites. Then we approve by the end of March for the upcoming growing season.

A community garden is a real community effort. For us to put our philanthropic efforts out there, we need to make sure there are plenty of people out there, plenty of hands on deck ... and that the community is looking to develop this as a long-term community space in their neighborhood. We ask for a site plan, some basic questions about the land, the owner, access to water, hydrants. We also ask for letters of support from adjacent homeowners. We also ask for neighborhood support sheets. We want to know that the majority of people on the immediate block support the use of this space as a community garden. They don’t necessarily have to get their hands dirty or eat a tomato, but they do have to generally give the project a thumbs up. ... We also ask for a core group of stakeholders, eight to 10 people.

Are you limited in how many you start every year?

We haven’t had to limit ourselves just yet.

How much does a garden generally cost and where does the money come from?

In general, we put between $1,500 and $2,500 into a new garden. We are heavily grant funded and we do have membership as well as individual donors and we do fund-raisers, as well. Unfortunately, Grass Roots Gardens can’t supply everything a garden needs. We wish we could, but we can’t … so it’s really a community effort. For this new University Heights project, one of the churches is going to do some small fund-raisers for this garden and pay for some benches and stuff like that.

What happens to the vegetables?

The community consumes them. How depends on how they’ve decided at the beginning of the season to grow. So they’ve decided in this garden they may assign specific beds or portions of the beds to certain people or families in the community. With the vast majority of our gardens, the people decide to grow communally, so they decide what they want to grow at the beginning of the season and they assign a bed to one or two types of vegetables. Then they have set harvest days, so they harvest together and share the produce. ... Some may donate to a food pantry or food bank, but it’s really about neighborhood-based food production, so these vegetables are going back to the households of the host community.

Do you have any issues with theft?

We really don’t. Every once in a while, our gardeners talk about it. It usually tends to be neighborhood kids who aren’t that familiar and are going into the garden and picking some tomatoes and throwing them at each other. It’s usually an education piece: ‘Hey, this is a community garden and it’s for everyone in the neighborhood. Come and see all we’re growing.’ These places tend to become assets in the neighborhood and people have a significant level of pride in them and they tend to protect them.

What does the organization do in the winter?

We use the winter to do all of our planning. ... You definitely don’t build a garden in a season, so our newer gardens, they’re going to require a significant about of supplies and materials for up to three seasons. So we need to know from them, ‘What are you anticipating?’ In University Heights, for example, in 2014 they may want to build six new raised bed gardens, so during the winter months, we need to get information from all of our 70 gardens from what they’re build-out plans and we put that into our budget.

Busiest time of year?

May through July and fall as well.

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About The Refresh Buffalo Blog

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered various topics in his quarter-century as a journalist in South Florida, Syracuse and Buffalo. He is aiming to pass along what he is learning these days about health, fitness, nutrition and family life.

@BNRefresh | refresh@buffnews.com

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