Highmark donates $10K to help gardening effort bloom

PARKERSBURG – An educational component is coming to the Downtown Farmers’ Marketplace that presents an opportunity for children and adults to learn more about gardening.

Highmark West Virginia President Fred Earley presented a $10,000 check Wednesday from the Parkersburg-headquartered company’s foundation to fund construction of 49 raised bed gardens behind the marketplace, located on Ann Street near the floodwall.

Joining city and company officials at the groundbreaking was West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick.

“Our corporate vision and values is really to focus on the health and wellness of our customers and the communities we serve,” Earley said. “This was a grand slam as far as we’re concerned.”

Construction on the gardens will begin next week, said Jerrod Dean, a development coordinator with Helmick’s office who has been assisting with the market. They will be able to be used, for a fee still to be determined, by various groups and individuals.

“We want to extend an invitation to local schools, local organizations, also the public,” Dean said.

Downtown PKB director Carrie Nesselrode said not only will children be able to learn about gardening if their school gets a raised garden, adults can as well. She said she could see people who live or work downtown starting their own gardens in the raised structures behind the marketplace and tending them on their lunch hours.

“Most people when they think of downtown don’t really think of the ability to have a garden,” Nesselrode said.

Not only can it be educational and interesting, Nesselrode said growing one’s own produce offers a chance to eat healthier and reverse the troubling health statistics often associated with West Virginia.

“We need to be doing this for our community,” she said.

Helmick said the gardens tie in with the Agriculture Department’s goals of getting West Virginians to produce more of their own food, creating more jobs, and eat healthier. The commissioner said studies have shown Mountain State residents consume more than $7 billion worth of food a year, but produce well under $1 billion.

“We see it as a $6 billion opportunity,” he said. “We want West Virginians eating a healthy product that’s grown on West Virginia land by West Virginians.”

Helmick last visited the market in November, before it was renovated. On Wednesday, he got to tour the site, which has spaces set up for multiple vendors from around the region.

“This thing has changed,” he said.