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It may be only the end of January, but already a countywide effort is afoot to till as many yards, public spaces and empty lots as possible into mini-food farms by spring.

In a play on the old political axiom of a "chicken in every pot," a consortium of agencies, local governments, business leaders, nonprofits and special interest groups that were organized in 2007 by Sonoma County supervisors is hoping to eventually see "a garden on every block" or at least in every neighborhood.

The "Grow Healthy Food" initiative or "iGROW Sonoma," is similar to the "iWALK Sonoma" effort launched by Health Action last year to get people exercising. But this one is aimed at improving what people eat by galvanizing them to start gardening wherever possible.

"We're hoping as more and more people touch and taste the experience of healthy fresh food, their appreciation for it will grow," said Ellen Bauer. She oversees the Health Action program through the department of health services' prevention and planning division.

The organization by mid-February plans to launch a Web site (igrowsonoma.org) that will serve as a networking site and central resource for all things gardening, helping gardeners and would-be gardeners connect.

Once up and running, the site will include information on how to start a garden, a calendar of classes and events, volunteer opportunities for gardening and gleaning, contact information for groups that sponsor or maintain gardens, places to volunteer and a registry of existing and new gardens to capture the collective food-growing power in the county.

The project is tapping into a growing global interest in vegetable gardening both privately and collectively.

"It's becoming more mainstream now," said Vicki Garrett of the American Community Gardening Association in Columbus, Ohio, which in the past year has seen a 19 percent increase in phone inquiries and a 24 percent leap in e-mails from people interested in starting gardens.

"There have been a lot of food scares. We're getting our food from questionable places. People want more quality food. Then we had the whole fuel price thing that increased grocery prices. The average food travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate. And then the economy just fell. So there are a lot of hungry people out there and a lot of interest in community gardening," she said.

In Sonoma County, groups already are eyeing and claiming empty lots for new gardens.

St. James Catholic Church in Petaluma is turning a half-acre of unused parish land on Sonoma Mountain Parkway into a garden to raise food for the needy. They've already got a winter crop of lettuces, cauliflower, beans and herbs, volunteer Lois Pearson said.

In Santa Rosa, the Knox Presbyterian Church is readying a long-barren, ?-acre lot at West Third Street and Stony Point Road into 40 vegetable plots they will make available to anyone who doesn't have their own yard, said co-organizer Ann McClure.

Community gardens are particularly valuable in urban areas and lower-income neighborhoods where people are renters or live in apartments.

"The space issue is a great need," said Magdalena Ridley, outreach coordinator for the Bayer Farm in Roseland, a community garden that is a joint project of the city of Santa Rosa and LandPaths. All of the farm's 36 plots are spoken for and Bayer now has a waiting list.

The Sonoma Ecology Center in Sonoma Valley is partnering with La Luz to create a community garden at Larsen Regional Park in Boyes Hot Springs.

"Most of the people that live in that community work in the agricultural fields and they have very little access to local and fresh foods," said Jessica Glatt, project manager for the Sonoma Garden Park, a member of the Springs Community Garden Coalition and a supporter of "iGROW."

The Grow Healthy Food effort, Bauer said, grew primarily out of concern over an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other health risks that come from a poor diet low in fresh fruits and vegetables. More than half of all adults 18 and older in Sonoma County are overweight, according to the California Health Survey, and the numbers are rising.

The percent of overweight or obese people 18 and older jumped from 28 percent in 1997 to 56 percent in 2005. Among youth 4 to 20, the rate increased from 21.8 percent in 2002 to 23.5 percent in 2006. The rate is even higher among the low-income population, where more than two-thirds of adults reported being overweight.

Obesity also is a major risk factor for diabetes, said Bauer, with nearly 5 percent of the local population diagnosed with the disease.

"This is all about making connections," Bauer said. "It's a network to help people find out what's out there. But hopefully it will stimulate even more activity. The time is ripe. There are a lot of experienced food growers in the community and we want to encourage people to share their knowledge and their skills with each other."