In Shelby County, Tennessee, more than 20 percent of the population doesn’t know where its next meal will come from. Called food insecurity, this means people either can’t afford or can’t access enough nutrition to live active, healthy lifestyles, and it’s a growing problem in America.

As a 1982 landscape contracting and management graduate of Mississippi State University, Michael Hatcher has the tools to help ease this issue in his community and he’s partnering with national and regional organizations to make a difference.

In collaboration with The Kitchen Community, a nationwide nonprofit organization, Hatcher is building Learning Gardens in schools across the Memphis metro area. By focusing on edible plants, these gardens in underserved schools in urban areas teach children about healthy foods and eating habits through a structured curriculum in these outdoor classrooms.

“Gardening gives young people a sense of accomplishment. It also helps them see and understand where food comes from,” explained Hatcher, who owns Hatcher and Associates Inc., a full-service landscaping firm in Olive Branch.

In its first year with The Kitchen Community, Hatcher and his team have built more than 80 Learning Gardens at area schools, including Whitehaven High near Graceland, where the students punctuated the garden’s design by painting planters, murals and handmade signs.

Memphis Catholic Middle and High School’s Learning Garden, located in the Midtown neighborhood, got its own spin as part of a recent Come Alive Outside Design Challenge, sponsored by Hatcher’s firm. As part of another national nonprofit, Come Alive Outside creates opportunities for students at the college, secondary and elementary levels to collaborate with landscape professionals to design and build their own unique outdoor learning space.

“Four college teams participated in the design challenge, which had to include the creation of a certified wildlife habitat. They also had to address rainwater use and management,” Hatcher explained. “Learning Garden elements like modular raised beds, seating, shade areas and boulders for children to climb had to be incorporated as well.”

Teams from Mississippi State, Auburn University, Louisiana State University and Hinds Community College engaged in a two-day design charrette with the high school and middle school students and teachers. From there, the teams developed concepts, drew designs and submitted them to a panel of judges. The MSU team won with a concept called “The Cellular Learning Garden,” which integrates educational, physical and spiritual components based on the cell as the basic building block of life.

While urban gardens serve to educate youth, Hatcher also sees the concept as a catalyst to connect generations.

“Growing up in Mississippi during the 1960s and 70s, farming was sort of in my DNA,” said Hatcher, who began picking produce as a summer job at the age of 14. “While I grew up in this environment, there are entire generations that skipped the experience of growing their own food.

“For the younger generations, gardening familiarizes them with a basic, essential skill. For the older generation, however, it’s a glimpse back into childhood,” he continued. “Many older folks in our part of the country have memories of parents or grandparents that had truck patches or gardens themselves. Urban gardening gives them a chance to reconnect with the past.”

“Growing up in Mississippi during the 1960s and 70s, farming was sort of in my DNA. While I grew up in this environment, there are entire generations that skipped the experience of growing their own food." ~ Michael Hatcher

Hatcher said building gardens is part of a personal dream that was more than 40 years in the making. It began with that first summer job in Brookhaven.

“Soon after I began picking produce for Mr. Frank Burns and his son Ted at the Brookhaven Nursery, the Lincoln County Garden Club selected me to attend a weeklong Mississippi Garden Clubs’ Horticulture Seminar at Mississippi State University,” Hatcher recalled. “That was my first trip to Mississippi State and I came home knowing that was where I would attend college and what I wanted to do with my life.”

After college, Hatcher set up shop as a landscape contractor. In 1990, his wife Mary, then his fiancee, came on as partner. She is now vice president of the company. In all, three generations of the Hatcher family have worked for the company, including the couple’s three children and Hatcher’s father.

The company employs more than 100 people across two divisions: landscape construction and landscape maintenance. The company celebrated 30 years in 2016, the same year the organization was selected as a Memphis Small Business Awards Finalist. It was also around the time that Hatcher’s ultimate vision began to take shape. The company relocated from its old, cramped headquarters to a 10,000-square-foot facility on 22 acres.

Hatcher said the idea of urban gardening is an integral part of his business plan at the new location. Design and construction of an urban display garden at the facility is in the works. The plans include a walking path, shade and sitting areas, vegetable container gardening, a cutting garden, and an orchard.

Hatcher said he sees the garden as an opportunity for employees to engage with the community and he hopes the space will serve as a showpiece of current industry trends. He also plans to host educational programming designed to meet the needs of young children, senior citizens and all ages in between.

“This industry isn’t just about landscaping,” Hatcher said. “While expertise in design and construction is vital, this business is largely about people: employees, customers and the community.”

By Vanessa Beeson | Photo by Russ Houston | Video by David Garraway