Growing Food has Therapeutic Charms

Bilal Sarwari 07Ox 09C teaches troubled teens to connect with nature and grow their own food.

By Michelle Valigursky

For thousands of years, humans/people have turned to the earth for food, relaxation, and calming beauty. More recently, gardens have become a retreat for therapeutic healing. Therapeutic Gardener Bilal Sarwari 07Ox 09C shares his passion for cultivating food gardens with teens who have suffered major psychiatric crises.

As 13th-century Persian poet Rumi once wrote, “The garden of the world has no limits, except in your mind.” This holds true in reality, Sarwari says. “When we plant and harvest our food, we gain an appreciation for the cycles of nature and renew the deep connection that exists between us and the soil. There is a healing that takes place when a person carefully prepares a planting site—amending the earth and nurturing a small seed into a thriving plant.” More than that, he says, “When you heal the soil, you’re healing yourself.”

Nurturing Healing by Getting Dirty

Realizing the transformative power of gardening, Sarwari designed and implemented a program for View Point Health in Atlanta to help distressed teens heal. “We are a short-term residential psychiatric health facility for kids 14-17,” he explains. “Our patients come to us in need, sometimes still reliving a recent trauma when they arrive. We create a healthy, positive environment by letting them get their hands dirty. By allowing the kids to take care of something, we set them on a path to recovery.”

An avid gardener, Sarwari struggled to get the program established. The outdoor area for View Point patients was previously confined to a concrete zone. The only green space for gardens lay beyond the perimeter of this safe enclosure. Sarwari knew that to enact change he would have to push the boundaries for the patients’ benefit. “Initially, View Point Health was concerned that we might encounter potential behavior issues.”

With startup permission granted and limited funding, Sarwari quickly proved his concept. Now the View Point Health Therapeutic Gardening Program is fully integrated into patient recovery and has become a fixture at View Point.

Slow Food Roots Run Deep

Shiva and Sarwari

Emory invited Indian Environmental
Activist Vandana Shiva to speak on
issues surrounding food democracy.
She is pictured here with Bilal Sarwari (right).

In the planning phase at View Point, “My challenge was to integrate the program into what was already in place,” he explains. “I asked myself, how would this garden benefit the kids? How can it help them expand their horizons and get over a major psychiatric crisis?”

To begin, Sarwari looked back on lessons learned during his time at Emory. As the founder of the Slow Food USA’s Emory Chapter, he has long advocated for food that is produced and harvested in a way that is “Good, clean, and fair.” Slow Food Emory strives to reconnect students to the soil, water, organisms, cultures, and traditions salient to the production of food and establish sustainable communal interactions. Slow Food Emory seeks to invigorate genuine interest in food policy and production, encourage student involvement with the local sustainable food community, and encourage an appreciation for the importance of food in our daily lives.

Having seen firsthand the impact of Slow Food Emory, Sarwari sought to replicate methodology in his View Point Health program. To begin, Sarwari lay the groundwork for gardens, then invited the kids to join him. “I have put everything I learned through Slow Food into this program,” he says. “The kids helped to plant everything – seedlings, flowers, shrubs, and bulbs. Now they help to maintain and harvest the garden, and they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor."  

The First Steps to a Slow Food Garden

Would you like to start your own Slow Food garden? Sarwari recommends these steps. “Start small to ensure success. Begin by identifying a plot of land that has adequate sunlight and access to water," Sarwari suggests. 

“Once your garden area is defined, take the most important first step: amend the soil.” To increase output and quality, garden soil can be supplemented with organic compost and fertilizer. “Stick with native plants at first and check what varieties will do well in your garden’s regional zone. Native plants have qualities we often take for granted, and you’ll have the best success with these if you’re just starting out,” he recommends.

“Prolific produce gardens also contain a balance of flowering plants. Our best year yet for the View Point Health Therapeutic Garden came when we planted flowering shrubs amongst the crops to attract pollinators. These pollinator-friendly plants also helped keep the pest population low by attracting beneficial insects, and we’ve never had to rely on pesticides.”

As he prepares to enter medical school, Sarwari reflects. “I think of myself as a soil farmer more than anything else. All things are connected, and when you carefully prepare the earth in a garden you ensure the health of the plants and people that benefit from that plot of land. The same goes when you carefully prepare a meal—you ensure the health of the community and environment to which you belong. Slow Food is about the meaningful and sustainable change that occurs when you consider all parts of a working system.”

Editor's Note: According to Slow Food USA, “The future of food is the future of the planet. A better, cleaner and fairer world begins with what we put on our plates – and our daily choices determine the future of the environment, economy and society.” They suggest, “If you care about local farmers, ranchers, fishers; animal welfare; the joy of a shared meal; preserving food culture; protecting the environment or avoiding GMOs, we have a place for you at our table.”

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Michelle Valigursky