Vine Branch Fellowship Brings Fresh Produce to the Classroom and the Community.

by | Mar 2024

IF YOU’VE driven by one of the community gardens on Coles Ferry Pike or East Market Street, or if your child has brought fresh produce home from their elementary school classroom, you’ve seen the work of Vine Branch Fellowship and its founders, Alex and Shené Scott. Their ministry has been offering fresh food, gardening classes, and nutrition classes to the Lebanon community since 2019, and the community is better for it.

Alex works as a firefighter and a youth minister, and Shené spent over a decade teaching before their family found themselves dealing with a host of food-related challenges. The allergies, hypoglycemia, and Type 1 diabetes that the Scotts and their children had to work with prompted them to learn more about healthy eating. Their drive to serve made them want to share that knowledge.

“In 2019, we started primarily focusing on ministry,” Alex said. “As we formed the team, we kind of transitioned into focusing on a community of focus due to the chronic illnesses and disparity that was happening in certain communities in Lebanon.”

While Vine Branch Fellowship works mainly in Lebanon, Wilson County has become its focal point. Alex said it was because of the community’s welcoming spirit.

“We’ve been welcomed into the school system and have been able to install a number of gardens — a number of community gardens,” Alex said. “We can help others with their battles with whatever illness it is, or health disparity, they may be facing.”

The schools have welcomed the organization. Vine Branch Fellowship is in partnership with the Lebanon Special School District, with the goal of having a garden at every elementary school in the area. Three schools have them, and Shené said they hope to put in a fourth one this spring. The decision to build gardens in schools in addition to the community was intentional.

“Health affects everyone at every grade level, at every age level,” Shené said. “We want it to be a complete community learning experience.”

For that complete experience, Shené goes into the classrooms to teach kids where their food comes from, what it looks like, and how to grow it on their own — but it doesn’t stop there. Lessons are given on nutrition. Older students basic knife, kitchen, and cooking skills, all led by nutritional director Leslyne Watkins.

“We kind of like to think of it like a full circle,” Watkins said. “[We are] showing the kids different ways that they can incorporate these foods that they’re either taking part in growing or that they’re seeing growing in their gardens, and showing them what that would look like in real life and how to build a healthy plate off of those things.” 

Watkins also works with the University of Tennessee as a nutrition educator and said she often collaborates with her programs. Watkins said they have partnered on community gardens and bringing nutrition education to other limited-resource audiences. She and Shené teach adult classes on many of the same topics as the schools: cooking, nutrition education, and gardening. 

“We want everyone to be healthy, so it’s not just specific to the kids,” Shené explained. 

Already, the Scotts feel like Vine Branch Fellowship has made a difference. They have heard stories of kids trying vegetables for the first time, finding comfort in sensory herbs, and even taking control of their family’s home gardens. Teachers take fresh produce home from their school gardens over the summer, and families can supplement their grocery runs with homegrown fresh produce. 

“I think everyone’s mindset on eating the healthier foods has changed,” Alex said. “We’ve had those conversations constantly through meetings with different organizations, with individuals coming up to us within the community talking about enjoying the garden.” 

During the summer, the organization puts on a camp for children who want to learn more. The camp curriculum expands on gardening and nutrition and delves into farms, farm animals, and other topics enhancing health education. In the future, Vine Branch Fellowship will install many more gardens, continuing the indoor aeroponics gardens in the classroom and adding pollinator gardens outside. 

Alex said the Lebanon Special School District, the City of Lebanon, the Wilson County Civic League, and the Wilson County Master Gardeners have been vital to Vine Branch Fellowship’s success. 

“If we can install other community gardens out in the community, then we’re all for that,” Alex said. “Anything we can do [with] health initiatives within the community, that’s what we strive to do to make it easier and more affordable and provide people with assets.” GN

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