Building Capacity FOR Building Capacity: Community Outcomes of Gardening Programs in Central Appalachia

Central Appalachia has long been associated with negative environmental, social, and economic ramifications of uneven development, extra-local corporate control, and extraction of natural resources. Coal production has been critical to Central Appalachian economies, yet industry declines during recent decades have exacerbated long-term trends of poverty and unemployment. These socioeconomic issues, combined with environmental pollution, have contributed to low individual and community wellbeing. In response to these issues and the failure of many top-down strategies toward alleviating them, a number of grassroots initiatives have emerged. To examine the impacts of such initiatives, a program evaluation was conducted in collaboration with the Berea College-based Grow Appalachia initiative. Combining a theoretical community capacity-building framework and a factor analysis of program participant survey results (n=588), this study assesses the contributions of community-based gardening programs to sustainable development in coal-impacted communities. Preliminary findings suggest that while these programs do significantly improve household food security, other aspects of individual and community wellbeing that these programs intend to address – human health, education, and economic development – are also some of the greatest impediments to success. Yet, this study finds that community-based gardening programs contribute to individual development in unanticipated but important ways, including increased individual efficacy, new social relationships, and healthier food-sharing networks. This presentation will demonstrate how impoverished, rural communities innovatively build fundamental individual and organizational capacities FOR building community capacity, taking additional intermediate steps to overcome unique conditions that are often taken for granted in community development theory, research, and practice.