Access to fresh food is a challenge many residents of South Bethlehem face, and this problem is magnified among the area’s senior citizens. A lack of mobility, economic limitations and medical issues further complicate this dilemma. However, Lehigh’s South Side Initiative (SSI) has worked with local organizations to meet their needs.
Daniela Rossi ’14, a dual major in environmental science and political science, spent her summer interning with the South Side Initiative to harvest a garden for seniors at Bethlehem’s Hispanic Center.
“The garden was originally planted by a group of Global Citizenship students,” said Rossi. “For 10 weeks, I harvested the vegetables from the garden, and incorporated them into the diets of the seniors.”
The Hispanic Center feeds 40 seniors two meals a day on an annual budget of just $12,000. With the help of Breena Holland, an associate professor of political science and a faculty member in the Environmental Initiative, Rossi was awarded a grant in Experiential Learning in Public Health through the College of Arts and Sciences. The money is being used to maintain the garden, which has had a positive impact on the health of the seniors.
“Healthy food is more expensive nowadays, and our goal with this garden is to eat healthier and to provide physical activity and a healthy environment,” said Damaris Torres, coordinator of the senior center. “Gardening is a peaceful thing, and the seniors like it because they have experience in their culture doing this sort of thing.”
A local community with much to offer
In addition to providing meals for the seniors, the Hispanic Center offers weekly programs co-sponsored by SSI, takes seniors on walks through the South Bethlehem Greenway, and takes seniors on trips throughout the area. With help from Lehigh volunteers, the center also helps seniors fill out applications and schedule doctor appointments.
“We are like a family; I take care of them and they take care of me,” said Torres. “One of the most amazing things about the center is that we are able to help the seniors live independently, because most of them live by themselves.”
Seth Moglen, associate professor of English and director of the South Side Initiative, says that partnering with local organizations both enhances Lehigh students’ education and contributes to the quality of life in the community.
“Through the Hispanic Garden project, Global Citizenship students have learned about the conditions experienced by many residents in our diverse, postindustrial South Side community and they’ve also learned about from the rich histories and cultural resources of these residents,” said Moglen.
“In order to develop the garden effectively, students need to be culturally responsive to the seniors’ food ways: the seniors would grow and harvest the vegetables they wanted to eat. At the same time, working in the garden provides the seniors with health benefits, as well as the opportunity to work with young folks and participate in an intergenerational exchange.”
“Many Lehigh students have a misconception about the community here, but I was received right away and I love Bethlehem after this experience,” said Rossi. “There’s always a way you can help. If there’s one piece of advice I have for Lehigh students, it is to get involved in South Bethlehem because it has so much to offer.”
Photos by Christa Neu