Bringing health care to community gardens

SIU launches Operation Taproot to connect residents to medical and social services

click to enlarge Bringing health care to community gardens
Photo by Bethany Payne.
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's Operation Taproot employs a community health worker who spends time at two community gardens in Springfield to talk with members of the public about nutrition and offer access to SIU medical services. One of the two sites, Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens, pictured here, hosts a free farmers market that is open to anyone from 10 to 11 a.m. every Saturday during the growing season.

When Kaye Barnes and her coworkers in purple T-shirts hand out free produce as they walk around a neighborhood on Springfield's east side, residents are thankful but also taken aback that these strangers care about them.

"They are sort of stunned, shocked and literally surprised," said Barnes, a community health worker in the Access to Care program at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

As the founder of Operation Taproot, an initiative launched a few weeks ago as part of SIU's Office of Community Care, Barnes hopes to use community gardens to support neighborhoods by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and connecting residents who are interested with an array of social and health services at SIU.

Among her other duties, Barnes, 49, spends four to six hours per week at the Motherland Community Project's community garden at 815 S. 15th St., and six to eight hours per week at Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens, 1022 N. Fifth St.

She and other staff members, medical students and volunteers from SIU, all wearing the medical school's distinctive shirts, help with general chores at two existing community gardens operated by other organizations. The community care office also has its own 4-feet-by-8-feet raised bed at Motherland to cultivate vegetables that will be given away.

The SIU volunteers get to know the residents and promote healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. At the same time, Barnes said, they have opportunities to subtly inform residents about the Access to Care program.

"It's to provide a visible presence," Barnes said. "First they watch, and then they ask questions, and if they or someone they know may need a service that they think a community health worker can help with, then I'm here. I can start the ball rolling now, because I usually carry my laptop with me and forms, and then we can just get started.

"I carry a blood pressure monitor in my car at all times. The rest of the Office of Community Care team is only a phone call away," she said.

The Access to Care program began in 2015 and initially was called the Enos Park Access to Care Collaborative. The free SIU program, a partnership with HSHS St. John's Hospital and Springfield Memorial Hospital, has received more than $1.5 million in support from the hospitals since its inception. The program has expanded to other neighborhoods, including the Pillsbury Mills neighborhood, and has touched other parts of Springfield, including the east side.

click to enlarge Bringing health care to community gardens
Kaye Barnes, a community health worker in Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's Access to Care program and founder of Operation Taproot, works at the Motherland Community Project's community garden in the 800 block of South 15th Street in Springfield.

The nationally recognized program uses community health workers and other health professionals to focus on improving the "social determinants of health." These are factors outside a doctor's office – such as crime, housing and issues related to poverty – that typically affect, for better or worse, more than 60% of a person's health, based on a well-established body of research.

Health disparities related to the social determinants can be seen in the annual County Health Rankings and Roadmaps reports by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Out of 102 counties in Illinois, Sangamon County ranked 58th in "health outcomes" based on statistics surrounding length of life and quality of life, but fifth place in "clinical care," in the 2023 report. The high ranking in clinical care is due in large part to the concentration of doctors and other medical professionals in Springfield, a downstate medical hub.

The disparity in rankings means a community's concentration of medical care doesn't mean residents are taking advantage of those resources, and medical care doesn't always equate with good health, local experts say. While the Enos Park neighborhood is located within the boundaries of the Mid-Illinois Medical District – one of only three medical districts statewide – and bounded by the two hospitals and SIU School of Medicine, neighborhood residents actually tend to have worse health outcomes than those living in wealthier parts of Springfield.

click to enlarge Bringing health care to community gardens
Kaye Barnes holds a tub of produce harvested for the free farmers market in Enos Park.

The 2023 ranking actually was Sangamon County's best showing in more than 10 years. The county's ranking for health outcomes was 82nd among Illinois counties in 2020, for example.

Lifestyle issues, such as an adult smoking rate of 17%, a 31% adult obesity rate, and rates of physical inactivity, poor mental health days and sexually transmitted infections all above state averages, have created challenges for health care providers at SIU and elsewhere in Sangamon County.

Professionals from the Access to Care program help their lower-income clientele get to the doctor's office, avoid using hospital emergency rooms for primary care, and act as guides when clients need help with housing and other economic necessities.

Barnes is a diabetes lifestyle educator and a nationally certified nutrition coach. "Nutrition's my jam, obviously," she said.

The Springfield native earned a master's degree in library science from Dominican University in River Forest and said she was working as a reference librarian in Michigan when she decided to switch careers.

Barnes was consistently serving library patrons who had been sent by their doctors to improve their health by changing their diet. She decided that she didn't want to work in a library the rest of her life, and her research into nutrition eventually led to SIU in 2020 after she moved back to Springfield to be with the man who would become her husband.

Before the SIU job, though, she said she worked full time in retail, earning $16,000 per year and making $1,000 more than it would take to qualify for government assistance.

Barnes said she has experienced what it's like to work odd hours and not be able to afford healthy food. "I know it can take a lot for people who are just getting by, who are a flat tire away from complete disaster," she said. "That's why all of this is so important."

click to enlarge Bringing health care to community gardens
More than 500 seedlings were given away to the community during various events at the Enos Park garden site.

The name for Operation Taproot is based on the concept of establishing deep roots to rejuvenate soil – or neighborhoods in this case – and establish "social permaculture," or networks that support sustainable living, she said.

"You work with the community, not on top of it," she said.

Gardening is a good way of integrating with a neighborhood and establishing trust with neighbors, "when they see you working in the community and you can give them something directly, like mustard greens," Barnes said. "It's something where you're here repetitively, for a very long time. And so they see us working directly in their community. You're not extracting anything out of the community. You're putting something into the community.

"They don't need a handout. If they're here, they're not at the homeless shelter, so they're getting by. But who doesn't want to know that if you need something, you know there's someone here that's going to stick around? They're not going to make a lot of promises and then just jump ship."

The Motherland Project, which includes an apiary with a beehive and an area for a community-supported-agriculture crop sharing garden, is three years old and was founded as a nonprofit by Yves Doumen, a native of the west-central African country of Cameroon.

Doumen also is a cofounder of Afro House Springfield, a media company promoting Afro culture and offering digital marketing services. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he holds a bachelor's degree in geography sciences from a university in Cameroon and an associate's degree in agriculture business from Lincoln Land Community College.

Doumen said he appreciates the labor that Barnes and others at SIU have donated to the garden and their efforts to spread the word about the garden's free and low-cost services and access to raised beds and free seeds and seedlings. Raised beds can be rented for as low as $10 to $20 per year, he said.

The access that SIU provides to health services is a bonus, he said.

click to enlarge Bringing health care to community gardens
From left, Dr. Gabriella Tison-Brandon and Dr. Ali Hofer, both recent graduates from Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, and SIU medical student Natalie McClure clear out the blackberry bed at the Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens as part of the annual SIU Day of Service held May 5. Medical students spent the day working on a variety of projects in Enos Park and Pillsbury Mills neighborhoods.

"We want people to receive services where they are," Doumen said. "We're building social capital and trust. SIU has been a really good partner."

In Enos Park, SIU's community health workers "are a real boon for our neighborhood," said Carey Smith, manager of the nonprofit Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens. The garden is owned and operated as a partnership between the Enos Park Neighborhood Improvement Association and Kumler Outreach Ministries, with support from the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln, Dominican Sisters of Springfield and SIU.

Founded in 2012, the garden was established "as a place for community to happen," Smith said. Personal plots can be rented for $10 per year, and free classes are offered on gardening.

About 1,300 people visited or volunteered in the communal garden last year, and the garden offers a free farmers market from 10 to 11 a.m. every Saturday during the growing season, Smith said. Produce that has been given out recently includes cauliflower, cabbage, black raspberries and snap peas.

"It's a really calming, relaxing environment," Smith said. "People call it their happy place."

Smith said she knows of at least one gardener who talked with Barnes about a health issue related to blood pressure. Barnes is good at engaging with visitors, volunteers and gardeners who want to talk, Smith said.

After beginning only about six weeks ago, Operation Taproot has already helped connect a handful of people to SIU services, and Barnes expects that number to grow. She said she would like to forge connections with other neighborhood gardens in Springfield.

"I have met so many people that I would never have gotten a chance to meet," she said.

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at [email protected], 217-679-7810 or

About The Author

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
[email protected], 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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