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Oak Park Retirement offers farm-to-table meals for residents

By Andie Foley

For the Salisbury Post

In dealing with Oak Park Retirement’s 125 residents, Activities Director Karen Leonard has heard and fulfilled a number of diverse, lingering “bucket list” experiences.

There have been trips, helicopter rides, treks in hot air balloons and – most recently – the opportunity to parasail over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Yet, in the midst of 10 years of whimsical dream-granting, Leonard still lights up with pride and excitement as she shows off the antithesis of these extravagant requests. Her enthusiasm comes just paces away from the confines of the retirement home, beside a communal garden ever-expanding within Oak Park’s 250 acres.

This tilled and blossoming earth represents a more practical granted wish for the center’s many residents, one that began in 2014 with help from Salisbury Academy students.

Nearly` six years later, the earth-tending effort has expanded to the point that Oak Park’s executive chefs are able to offer regular, farm-to-table meals to residents.

With a little help from some outside partnerships, Leonard adds.

“We brought in Happy Roots this past year because we wanted to do (the garden) on an ongoing basis,” she said. “Before, this was more a therapeutic experience for residents, which was wonderful, but we wanted to be able to offer more.”

Happy Roots, a local nonprofit dedicated to providing nature-based therapeutic and educational services around Rowan County, was quick to add the Oak Park site to its growing number of community gardens served.

Happy Roots team members Ashley Honbarrier and Aron Burleson have led the effort to both revamp and upsize Oak Park’s gardening efforts since the fall of 2019, working to till a patch of earth overlooking the complex.

“We got a late start for fall, as it was really hard tilling up the land,” said Honbarrier, “We had to work that for a while. For fall and winter, we’ve gotten the turnip greens, turnips, kale, collard greens, butter crunch lettuce and red leaf lettuce.”

As crops have come in, Honbarrier has worked closely with executive chef Justin Grier to ensure freshly harvested crops are used in as little time as possible.

“Once you harvest the crops or the produce, it starts losing its nutrients immediately,” said Honbarrier. “In three days, it could lose 30 to 80 percent of its vitamins.”

But Grier has made it easy to ensure Oak Park residents are consuming produce grown on site within a matter of days rather than hours: “Justin’s great to work with,” Honbarrier said. “We communicate well.”

The communication has led to menu items such as minestrone soup, kale salad, mixed greens and more – updated offerings that have done more than fulfill residential desires to work the earth.

“They love it,” said Leonard. “If the word is out that there’s going to be fresh food from the garden, we seem to have more people come down.”

With eyes on the spring, both Happy Roots and Oak Park are looking to expand these offerings. The nonprofit and retirement community are seeking donations of natural fertilizer and nutrients, equipment to work the soil. They’re also seeking monetary donations and volunteers to help tend the crops.

Immediate plans include the addition of raised beds closer to the complex to increase accessibility.

“When there’s more raised beds out there, you’ve got something where they’re not having to bend over or crouch down,” said Burleson. “It’s going to be a lot easier for residents to get involved.”

The possibility to keep all involved regardless of ability – from Happy Roots team members to school-aged volunteers, to retirees – is something all involved have treasured.

“The intergenerational programming is just wonderful,” said Leonard. “Ashley had a good heart. She was the right match for our residents. That’s a big part of it for Happy Roots. I can find a lot of people that can garden. It makes a big difference if you have somebody that has the right heart to work with the residents and garden.”

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