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Making a difference in the downtown

There’s a sign in front of a small plot of land that sits along Dock Street in Downtown Steubenville that sums up much of what is missing from many parts of our community: “Putting the neighbor back in the hood” is the short, but powerful, message on the sign that stands at the entrance of the Unity Garden.

Now in its 15th year, the garden is a place, organizers say, where local residents can go to nourish their body and their spirit.

That’s especially important in the downtown area, which has become a food desert. That, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is an area that lacks access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk and other foods that make up the whole range of a healthy diet.

It’s an issue that has been recognized for many years now — the lack of a supermarket or grocery store in the downtown area where residents can easily access those fresh foods.

The Unity Garden looks to help mitigate those concerns, organizer Justice Slappy explained, but it also offers a place where the spirit of community can be nurtured — from cutting grass to pulling weeds, to taking care of the cat and feeding the birds who call the area home, the garden offers a spot where people can come to relax and enjoy nature or engage in discussions with one other.

At the center of it all is the garden, which features corn, cucumbers, squash, peppers, grapes, blueberries, medicinal herbs, trees and birds. Plants come from local farmers, Slappy explained, and volunteers do the planting, but, he added, there are places where anyone can put a plant. It’s all, he said, part of the community effort.

Education about nature — knowing when to pick a ripe piece of fruit or vegetable, for instance — and bringing people from diverse backgrounds together to work toward a common goal, make the garden an important place in the downtown area. It’s also, Slappy said, a peaceful place, a location where visitors can enjoy a moment or two at a prayer station, a healing station or a gratitude station.

“When you come here,” Slappy said of the garden, “you have the birds, you can smell the flowers — those are all things we definitely need in our lives. The hustle and bustle of the world is so fast-paced, we lose ourselves in that.”

Steps are being taken to make fresh food more readily available for downtown residents, some of whom lack cars and find it difficult to use public transportation to go to grocery stores. The Unity Garden and the Backyard Food Garden Center of Urban Mission Ministries, for example, are looking to help ease those issues.

In the meantime, thanks to the efforts of Slappy and all of those who are involved with the Unity Garden, there is a place along Dock Street where neighbors are able to gather and find fresh food, spend a moment or two in reflection, take in the wonders of nature and enjoy the company of others.

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