The Green Urban Lunch Box is helping seniors in Utah create backyard gardens

Robert Comstock has been gardening since he was 15 years old. But now, at the age of 70, he is no longer able to take care of his plants on his own due to his diabetes diagnosis and his problems with kidney failure.

But he has help. Comstock uses the Green Urban Lunch Box, an organization that fights against food insecurity the salt lake valley. He registered as a gardener for the Back Farms. Program that sends volunteers to the backyards of local seniors to take care of them and pick fruits and vegetables. The program is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Comstock heard about the program at a local council meeting three years ago. He was pleased with the manner of his South Salt Lake Garden looks since he started hosting. But beyond that, he said he’s seen a positive change in how he sees the world.

He’s lost a lot of mobility since his type 2 diabetes diagnosis at age 57, he said. He is also on dialysis about three days a week due to his recent kidney failure four hours a day. As someone who worked with his hands in a wood shop as a public school teacher, a reduced ability to be active had an impact, he said.

“All of this triggered a tremendous amount of depression in me and I felt like I couldn’t do the things I loved anymore,” he said. “Now I can be with them as new life grows in the garden.”

Plants have always been an important part of Comstock’s life, he said. He grew up in Redlands, California next to orange groves. As he watched them die out and become cultivated land, he decided to do his part in growing organic food, he said.

He taught his children how to grow chard, green beans and tomatoes. He also helped approve a grant for a greenhouse at Okra Hills Middle School, where he worked.

Nonetheless, throughout his life he has seen small farms in the West gradually shrink.

“This Wasatch Front used to be a Garden of Eden,” he said. “There were orchards on the way to Brigham City. They are all cut down.”

That’s why he decided to support the Green Urban Lunch Box where he can, he said. He believes this is a way to revitalize small-scale organic farming in Salt Lake.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Collette, program director of Back Farms for Green Urban Lunch Box, prepares to plant fruit and vegetable seedlings in a backyard garden in Murray on June 6, 2023.

A Need Some “Don’t Know Exists”

A few volunteers and program director Jessica Collette now visit his home in South Salt Lake several times a week. They let him decide which tomato plants they plant and they also planted peppers, squash, cucumbers and eggplants.

Comstock was impressed with Collette’s expertise, he said. He’s been growing pumpkins for 55 years and she was able to fight an infection in his plant that he was never able to cure. He likes to learn from her, he said.

Produce is divided into thirds and Comstock receives one third, volunteers take the second third home and the final portion is donated to senior centers where free farmers’ markets are held at the Green Urban Lunch Box.

Part of the organization’s mission is to address food insecurity among seniors in the Valley, Collette said. According to the United Health Foundation, around 30,000 seniors in Utah suffered from hunger last year, accounting for 7% of Utah’s 60+ population.

She sees the program as a benefit because it provides food for both the garden’s hosts and the seniors who visit the organization’s farmers’ markets.

“It grew out of a need that people might not know existed,” Collette said.

Seniors affected by hunger face technical hurdles when it comes to typical ways to get help, she said. For example, online registration for food stamps can become a problem for people with vision problems, and it can also be difficult to organize transport if they have to go to a place where they have to register in person.

The Green Urban Lunch Box offers these seniors an alternative connection to the outside world, she said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 30,000 seniors in Utah suffered from hunger last year.

The Back Farms program currently serves 45 gardens in Sandy, Millcreek, Rose Park and Taylorsville. “It’s currently operating at full capacity for the amount of gardens it can accommodate,” Collette said. She and two other garden managers split two trucks to visit each garden throughout the week. To hire more staff and buy more vehicles, the organization needs more funding, Collette said.

There is currently a waiting list for setting up a garden for 2024 which is around 15 people. But Collette hopes the program can expand over the years – it started ten years ago with just 15 gardens.

In ten years, she would like the program to serve 100 gardens.

“I’d love to fill any need we can here,” she said. “If we could double the number of gardens that would be great.”

But she doesn’t want the Green Urban Lunch Box to be the only one. That’s why Collette is developing a guide so other Utahns and people in places like Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana — where a fifth of those over 60 are starving — can learn from the organization and start their own.

“There are other communities that I think could really benefit from this,” Collette said.

“I learned so much”

In addition to being able to provide food to seniors, Collette said programs like this help volunteers connect with both the community and the environment. For her, the best part of her job is seeing that connection in motion.

“What I like best is when we plant a seed and it actually grows and someone who’s never gardened before sees how it works,” she said. “It’s really magical.”

Even after nearly a decade of gardening, the process still baffles her, she said.

Many of the volunteers who offer to help Collette have previous gardening experience, but often live in apartments where they don’t have land to grow anything. In this way, the work becomes an outlet for returning to her passion, she said.

Sarah Puzzo is one of those volunteers. The 31-year-old started working with the organization two years ago. She grew up on her grandparents’ farm, but when she moved to Salt Lake City, she didn’t have a place to grow food.

“I was just looking for something to connect with the community,” Puzzo said. “And work outside and work with the land.”

Though she enjoys going back to her roots, Puzzo said what she liked best was interacting with the seniors who host the gardens, she said.

“I think it’s a good way for people who might otherwise be struggling with loneliness to continue to contribute,” she said. “You are still providing such a valuable and generous cause to your community. I just think that’s great.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Collette finds some lavender to decorate her jumpsuit while working in a backyard garden.

Another volunteer, 59-year-old Mary Ann Powles, has lived most of her life in New Jersey. She worked for a pharmaceutical company for 30 years before moving to Utah about four years ago. She’s always loved gardening on the East Coast, she said.

“Science is my thing,” she said. “This is science.”

But she wasn’t sure how to start growing food in a new climate. That’s why she started volunteering at the Green Urban Lunch Box last year.

“I just love it,” she said. “I learned so much about Utah soil and what to grow and how to grow it. I learn something new from it every week [Collette].”

Powles loves to grow beets and okra in Utah, but also grows tomatoes, which she used to grow in New Jersey.

In addition to Back Farms, the Green Urban Lunch Box also offers two other programs: FruitShare, which partners with fruit tree owners across the Valley to help with the harvest; and the Small Farm Initiative, which offers urban farming training on the organization’s own acres of land in South Salt Lake.

The organization also offers apprenticeships for anyone who wants to learn how to interact with the earth in a more urban landscape. Visit for more information.

Justin Scaccy

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