Doctor leads by example with garden at People’s Community Clinic
Dr. John Day does his bit to spread the news about healthy eating.By Michael Barnes
Fresh as mint in an eco-green riding shirt, Dr. John Day steers his bicycle into the parking lot of the spacious new of›ices of People’s Community Clinic on Camino La Costa. You couldn’t tell it from his dry brow, but he commutes 22 miles round-trip daily from Far Northwest Austin in order to take care of patients.
It is clear right away that Day doesn’t stop his medical care with a scribbled prescription and some comforting words. A doctor who formerly delivered babies, he now seeks long-term, sustainable solutions for patients who, at this longtime nonprofit clinic, pay according to their means.
After giving a quick tour of the sparkling facilities — including the kitchen, where clients learn healthy cooking skills — Day exits a side door onto a concrete terrace that was designed to serve as a staff break area. There, the physician filled existing raised beds with dirt, and then tested and improved the soil in what were originally decorative garden beds.
This day, the beds overflow with heat-tolerant okra, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, cucumbers, black-eyed peas, green beans and basil.
“Who wouldn’t want tomatoes and peppers?” he asks, shielding his eyes from the southwest sun while handing a tiny, tart tomato to this reporter. “Here, sweet potatoes and watermelon sprawl into a sea of green in the summer.”
This practitioner of family medicine possesses arestless mind that tends to refine big ideas down to basic prescriptions.
“To begin with, we are the critters who grow vegetables and cook them with ›ire,” he says. “Long ago, we were something that we aren’t any more — and that makes us unhealthy.”
Day worked at the old Brackenridge Hospital in 1977 while attending the Universit y of Texas. Around that time, he noticed people lining up by a church’s side entrance near Guadalupe Street. It was the ›irst location of People’s Community Clinic, founded in 1970 and staffed by volunteer nurses and doctors for the students, hippies and street folk of West Campus.
Almost two decades later, he became the clinic’s medical director for a few years. He has worked more recently at the clinic since 2008. He practiced for a while at the UT student health center.
One of Day’s more adventurous intervening medical gigs — he once took his wife and four kids on a tour of the world on bikes and with backpacks — was to serve as the only doctor on the thinly populated tip of the big island of Hawaii.
At home, Day tends a tall, verdant vegetable garden. Inspired by the World War II practice of planting “victory gardens,” he calls it his “Liberty Garden.” He has learned the tough task of rotating the crops to keep the soil healthy, a practice he transferred to the clinic’s gardens.
“We must find our place in a healthy nature by becoming stewards and not consumers,” he says. “You have to have living soil. We started here with no nitrogen and no organic matter. Dillo Dirt, made by the city from composted yard trimmings, helped take care of that. Now we’re having a good year.”
It took a while to ›ind a watering system that worked and also met the city’s water conservation code. He formerly used a dripper for two hours early on Fridays, but now he drips just a little before dawn every morning.
Day gets worked up when he shares his demonstration garden with the clinic’s staff.
“We’ve never seen a vegetable,” co-workers tell him. “At least not a growing vegetable.”
Besides helping people in need, Day concentrates on an extremely pared-down mission these days.
“To a ride abike,” he says. “And to grow vegetables.”Contact Michael Barnes at 512-445-3970 or . Twitter: @outandabout