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Volunteer Works to Address Food Insecurity in Columbus

Julialynne Walker, 72, received AARP Ohio’s 2022 Andrus Award for Community Service for her work to combat food insecurity in Columbus, teaching families how to grow their own vegetables. She also founded the Bronzeville Growers Market and supplied families with gardening kits.
Maddie McGarvey

Julialynne Walker was a college student on a study abroad program in 1969 when she visited a farm in Ghana and was struck by what she saw.

“I said, ‘Where’s the farm?’ ” recalled the Columbus native and lifelong gardener.

Rather than the sprawling, single-crop farms common in the U.S., the farmers used an integrated, multilayered approach. Yams grew underground, coffee and tea shrubs sprouted from the soil, and bananas shaded them all.

“I began to understand that food production could be obtained in many different ways,” says Walker, now 72, who recently received AARP Ohio’s top award for volunteers. “You just had to adapt it to the location.”

That type of ingenuity inspired her when she retired in 2012 and returned to her hometown. The decline Walker noticed in some lower-income neighborhoods—in particular a lack of healthy food options—spurred her to begin teaching families how to grow their own vegetables.

In Ohio, more than 322,000, or 7.2 percent, of people age 50 and older face food insecurity, meaning they have uncertain access to adequate nutritious food, AARP research shows.

Walker saw that her community was a food desert, says Kelley Neal, AARP Ohio program specialist. “And she just took it upon herself to address the issue.”

AARP Ohio has honored Walker for her work fighting food insecurity by awarding her the 2022 Andrus Award for Community Service, its most prestigious state-level award for volunteers.

Tackling food deserts

A third-generation Columbus resident, Walker comes to gardening naturally. Her immediate and extended family grew their own produce and some of them farmed. Her parents—both civil rights activists—also helped instill in her a desire to aid others.

Walker spent more than 20 years in Africa, working at nonprofits and other organizations that promoted access to education and health care.

After returning to Columbus, she began helping families in the city’s Near East Side neighborhoods, supplying them with materials that enabled them to garden even if they didn’t have suitable land to grow vegetables.

She gave more than 20 families kits that included a 50-gallon rubber container for planting, along with seeds, live plants, soil and other items. Her work was funded through the nonprofit Columbus Foundation.

“One fellow was so proud of his radishes,” she says. “I said, ‘What are you waiting for? Eat them.’”

AARP volunteer Ernestine Jackson, of Columbus, nominated Walker for the Andrus Award. Where she lives, there are some full-service groceries on the fringes but no stores selling fresh produce in the neighborhood’s core.

“It’s important that people are encouraged to raise some of their own food,” Jackson says.

In 2019, at least 40 areas in the Columbus region had low access to healthy food, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows. They are census tracts where at least 500 people or at least 33 percent of residents live farther than 1 mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter or large grocery store.

Walker’s efforts to address the problem have grown beyond gardening kits. She founded the nonprofit Bronzeville Growers Market, which provides families with resources for backyard gardening. She teaches a free 10-week online agriculture course twice a year. She helped develop a USDA-sponsored one-time seven-month course in urban farming. And she is piloting a city-sponsored urban farming program in local school districts.

“I just can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says.

Nominations for the 2023 Andrus Award are open through July 15. Go to

Mary Van Beusekom is a writer living in Excelsior, Minnesota.

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