Growing Gardens For Eastside Wellness

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Stephen Lucke, a student at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio (63% Latino), took a nutrition class early on in college and learned that limited healthy food access can increase the risk of diabetes and obesity among low-income minorities. After helping develop gardens at UIW to grow fresh produce, Lucke went a step further and started a non-profit called Gardopia. Lucke’s program creates school and community gardens to improve food access and grow a healthier and happier future for the people in San Antonio’s Eastside.

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Emergence: Getting Educated About The Need For Healthy Food Access

Stephen Lucke, a biochemistry student at UIW, ran on the track team, studied biochemistry, and served as the student body president. He wanted to study medicine, become a doctor, and make a difference in health.

Despite not making it into medical school, he learned he could still help through preventing people from getting sick in the first place.

The key was proper nutrition.

“I took a nutrition class, and I just really became educated about the obesity epidemic in the United States,” Lucke said. “You know San Antonio was the most obese city in 2007.” 

Lucke started a wellness program at UIW in 2011, using food logs, exercise classes, educational seminars and more to help people lead healthier lifestyles.

The next year, he worked with UIW’s administration to get permission to build a garden on campus, start fundraising efforts, and get land permitted for a garden on campus.

The UIW garden opened in the fall of 2012 with the help of UIW Grounds, Student Volunteers, and Departmental Staff.

Lucke was just getting started, as he partnered with Dr. Jeff Crane, a professor of Lucke’s at UIW, start youth educational gardens for an afterschool and summer program at the Ella Austin Community Center in the fall of 2013.

Lucke began to realize there was a need for garden maintenance and expertise especially school garden impoverished neighborhoods like the Eastside of San Antonio (District 2).

The population in the district has little access to healthy food and low job growth. However, the district has a growing Latino population, according to The San Antonio Express-News. In 2011, an analysis showed that Latinos now make up 60% of the population in the near East Side, up from 52% in 2000. Latinos, in general, tend to have less access to healthy food, including fewer grocery stores and more abundant fast food, research shows.

Where are the highest rates of obesity? In places of poverty, Lucke explained.

“If you look at a map of the United States, the highest rates of obesity are in the south,” he said. “I wanted to give back to District 2.”

Development: Ask And You Shall Receive

Lucke first wanted to start small gardens in schools where he believed he could impact future generations toward valuing a balanced diet.

Studies show if a child grows vegetables in their early years, they will more likely consume more fruits and vegetables later in life.

In fall 2013, while teaching in the youth gardens at Ella Austin Community Center, Lucke found out from an Eastside Promise Neighborhood employee that Bowden Elementary had gardens built near the playground area, but they were not being maintained or used by the school.

He decided to ask the school principal, Anita O’Neal if he could rebuild the gardens and start a garden-based curriculum in Spring 2015.

Lucke presented the idea for this pilot garden to principal O’Neal and the school board, Lucke got permission to rebuild the gardens and work with second-graders to test out the gardens under the leadership of Mrs. Laura Ruiz, a teacher at Bowden Elementary.

“I’m all about gardening and nature and stuff like that, so I think it was just a perfect fit,” Ruiz said.

Several long beds and an indoor area with three shorter beds would be tilled, weeded, and seeded as part of the revamped garden space. Lucke helped repair existing beds and bring in a new bed, too.

In the spring of 2014, Bowden Elementary allowed Lucke to implement his pilot gardening program into a full-fledged garden-based curriculum and school garden. Students harvested eggplants, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, tomatoes, and jalapeños.

ENACTMENT: Finding Land, Support, and Funding

In the fall of 2015, a new opportunity arose to build a community garden.

The Promise Zone—which combined three grants including the Promise Grant, from the Department of Education, the Choice Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Byrne Grant from the Department of Justice—was looking to restore areas on the Eastside of San Antonio in need.

Lucke had been consulting with Victor Zuniga, a property manager for Franklin Management, about a community garden for the Sutton Oaks Apartment complexes.

While in consultation with Zuniga, Lucke found out that the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) wanted to use some Promise Zone funds to start community gardens on two vacant lots in one of the highest crime ridden areas of San Antonio, to implement crime prevention through environmental design. (CPTED)

Lucke and Gardopia partnered with SAHA to manifest this community garden plan.

Lucke and SAHA moved forward with the CPTED plan in November of 2015 by having a community meeting, and in December broke ground on the two vacant lots on N. New Braunfels, where he dreamed of starting a garden utopia for the area, where crime would be reduced, produce would be grown for the community and a culture around health would grow.

The property owners were more than happy to let him build a garden and use the land for free.

“When I started to look at places [vacant lots] and was like, that’d be good, that’d be good, that’d be good, but I didn’t have any money to go purchase these vacant lots,” Lucke said. “One of my friends who works with me out of  Ella Austin has a vacant lot on Sherman and we started to develop that, but once again it’s about visibility to see the work you’re doing, and so it was just a blessing when SAHA said, ‘We want you to do this.’”

They started to generate support to start a garden on the N. New Braunfels land.

Lucke, who met Brooke Cranshaw and Will Miles of the Byrne Grant through Zuniga, and others frequently visited the garden site. Miles donating his own money for the first garden supplies also helped arrange for volunteers for the garden from organizations like Mission Crosspoint.

In October of 2015, Miles and Cranshaw told Lucke they may be able to allocate grant funding, and they worked through ideas for the community garden, finding funding to develop the Gardopia garden on N. New Braunfels through the Byrne Grant which gave the garden $5,000 total which $2,000 was dedicated for community events to build community around the garden like movie nights, barbecues and more. 

Change:  Lucke secured funding through Awesome SA in January of 2016 and was able to launch Gardopia as an official non-profit in April  2016, which allowed Lucke to:

  • Shift operations from UIW to Gardopia to sustain him and his volunteers’ continued work at the N. New Braunfels community garden; and
  • Implement his pilot school curriculum (developed at Bowden Elementary School) in other schools.

Gardopia is considered an education-based non-profit organization with the mission to teach communities about the importance of practicing wellness in their daily lives through gardening, creating a healthier, more educated and environmentally sustainable society.

“Once we got the grant funds, we were able to continue working in the garden and get more accomplished,” Lucke said.

IMPLEMENTATION: Gardening For Wellness 

Gardopia now helps serve San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) schools and hopes to partner with similar organizations to maintain and teach gardens all across San Antonio.

In 2014, the program’s pilot school, Bowden Elementary, harvested eggplants and bell peppers from its school garden and used them in a recipe by Principal O’Neal as their entry in the annual Taste of the Eastside neighborhood event.

The students now had project-based lessons that would tie-in math, science, observations, and questions, and at recess, some of the kids would go water the plants or go check on the gardens, Ruiz said.

“When you do project-based learning you can really tie in other subjects, not just science, you can tie in everything to it,” she said.

Students were also able to take home some of the harvests so that they could show their parents what they grew.

“It is a real-world tie-in,” said Ruiz. “It wasn’t just something they were reading about it was something they were actually experiencing they were actually going out there, so it was relevant, so things stick better when it’s relevant to their life.”

Meanwhile, the N. New Braunfels community garden is growing weekly with help from 10-15 volunteers that maintain and water 15 garden beds once a week through the “adopt-a-bed” program.

A “garden workday” every Saturday from 10a.m.-12pm. allows anyone in the community near the N. New Braunfels area to come help volunteer or visit the community garden.

“I did not expect the support (for Gardopia). I just knew I wanted to do something and continue with it,” Lucke told The Rivard Report. “I’m not a businessman and it’s been a struggle with the organizational structure. There have been a lot of times when I wanted to quit. But we created those partners, worked with the youth. The energy, the hope, the role modeling, the education makes it all worth it.”

Sustainability: Lucke plans to expand the school garden-based education programs, hoping to license them out for all schools public and private to utilize his STEM garden-based curriculum.

“I think just being exposed to the garden, that just it shows them that, ‘Hey I can, even though I’m an elementary kid, I can make a difference, I can do things,’” Ruiz explained. “They have some kind of empowerment to do things and make changes, even if it’s not something their families are used to or their used to seeing or doing. It’s like the world is theirs to take ownership of, it just opens their world.”

Gardopia Gardens works with K-12 students and college students, but Lucke’s dreams for garden wellness doesn’t stop at schools.

His future desire to bring physical and mental health continues to extend to the neighborhoods that surround the Gardopia Gardens’ space on North New Braunfels in District 2, San Antonio and beyond.

He also hopes to add a wellness center into his garden.

The wellness center, which he is seeking funding for, will be within the garden area and will feature a fresh juice and smoothie bar, cooking classes, counseling sessions, an open-air farmers market, and a small outdoor gym.

He also plans to keep the garden space growing by building equity and sustainability through jobs for the local community with plans to have a weekly farmers market, use vacant lots for micro-farms, and sell mulch, soil, and seedlings.

Lucke is still working to raise funds to officially purchase the property for the N. New Braunfels garden site from private owners, which originally agreed to a land-maintenance agreement through January of 2017. Now Gardopia has secured a land maintenance agreement through January 2020 for one lot, and are finalizing details on a land purchase for the other lot, where he hopes to extend garden business and hopes to reach full funding before the end of 2017.

His main focus is staying planted in the Eastside, where education and access to healthy food are vital.

“This is where we got started and we always want to serve,” he said. “My goal is to be able to serve in the next year to two to serve every public school on the Eastside and then eventually into the charter schools.”

Additional Links:

Gardopia Gardens

Gardopia Gardens Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

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