This spring, Crow Wing County master gardeners learned gardening 101 classes in the organization’s large plot at the Northland Arboretum were yet another casualty of the coronavirus.
With 2020 set to be the program’s fifth year, it’s grown from a small group of children to classes for adults and veterans as well. Faced with the disappointing news of canceling this educational programming for the year, the local University of Minnesota Extension volunteers chose to refocus their efforts toward addressing a side effect of the pandemic: food insecurity. The teaching gardens became the Giving Gardens, and the pounds of produce picked Wednesday, Aug. 26, pushed the total donated to Brainerd emergency food programs to over 500.
“We’ve talked about it as a group, and there aren’t a lot of bright spots this summer that you can really feel good about yourself, but this is one of those where you really feel like you’re doing something positive for the community, for people who really are in need and really appreciate it,” said Mike Lee, a master gardener in his second year. “And so you get that warm, heartfelt joy you have a hard time finding anyplace else.”
The Sharing Bread Soup Kitchen and The Salvation Army have both received donations of fresh vegetables and herbs from the gardens, delivered the same day they’re picked and then passed on to recipients. Even though only half of the gardening space is planted this season, the sheer volume of produce is impressive: between Aug. 12-26, more than 300 pounds were ready for harvest, including garden staples but also items such as long neck squash and tomatillos.
The master gardeners didn’t totally abandon their major goal of education as an organization, either. Participants developed Giving Gardens Guides to growing carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, green beans, herbs, tomatoes, peppers and squash, which also contained recipes. These guides were distributed alongside the produce.
“We knew food insecurity was going to be a big thing, and that lots of people were, you know, going back to their roots of gardening,” said Brittany Goerges, coordinator of the Crow Wing County Master Gardener Program. “So we figured this would do the food security, and we’d also use it to help people, first-time gardeners, to learn something.”
Candice Zimmermann, the arboretum’s new executive director, said she’s excited the organization can play a role in giving back to the community. She and her family relocated to the lakes area when she assumed her role in March, transitioning from community service organization Wright County Community Action.
“Being able to kind of continue that legacy of giving back and giving back in the most basic need possible is kind of rewarding, that I can still stick with that and be a part of that,” Zimmermann said. “So I think it’s amazing. I think that we were able to pivot our focus of the program really quickly and help the community in need. So, I mean, what else could you really ask for when you’re doing a program like this. I’m happy with it and you know we started out going, ‘Well, we’ll see what we get out of it,’ and it’s beautiful. It’s amazing, the amount that’s coming out of these small gardens.”
Lee, who’s delivered some of the produce to The Salvation Army, said it’s rewarding to hear directly from recipients about what the donations mean to them.
“From time to time as we’re there, people are coming and picking up food outside or picking up their bags. You universally get a thank you because they’re just so thankful to have something from The Salvation Army,” Lee said. “I think it just reflects the sign of the times that there’s a lot of people who have food insecurity right now, and these kinds of support systems like The Salvation Army and the soup kitchen are critical.”
Shannon Mills, executive director of Sharing Bread, said the Giving Gardens are the biggest source of local, fresh produce this summer, noting individuals from the area also contribute from their own home gardens.
“We get it on Wednesdays, which is perfect timing because we just hand it right over to the guests. So it gets picked shortly before they bring it over and then we give it to the guests that day to enjoy,” Mills said.
Because of the pandemic, the soup kitchen transitioned this year from offering hot meals to instead distributing bags of donated groceries to those in need. The fresh produce from the Giving Gardens complements dry goods and other items offered in the bags, put together in partnership with Operation Sandwich. Mills said demand continues to be much higher than is typical.
“It’s not ideal by any means. We’d love to be having our guests come in and dine with us seven days a week, but for right now it’s been working really good,” Mills said.
Mills said the food offered by the soup kitchen isn’t only providing a stopgap measure but is also providing nutritious options to which people might otherwise not have access to.
“I’ve had one specific guest … thank me for the food that they’re getting because they said before what we were doing, they weren’t eating as healthy and they were just eating noodles,” she said. “And so now because of the fresh produce and the meat and other food that we’re giving them, they said they’re eating a lot healthier, which is great to hear.”