How COVID-19 Inspired Gardeners to Feed a New Community

The “Growing Together” project is a collaborative, multi-state project between Purdue University SNAP-Ed and Extension Master Gardener programs within Extension’s North Central Region. Institutions participating include: Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Nebraska, and University of Wisconsin. The goal of the “Growing Together” project is to increase access to fruits and vegetables in food pantries through building and maintaining community donation gardens.

In Indiana, Purdue Extension Master Gardeners and Nutrition Education Program Community Wellness Coordinators (SNAP-Ed) engage in various food access projects to increase fruit and vegetable availability to food pantries and other service agencies serving SNAP-eligible clients. Extension staff collaborate with additional community partners to create and/or expand donation gardens in their communities. One such project was a garden in Allen County. Initially designed to supply fresh produce to a local college community, the harvest from this effort provided much needed food to a group of isolated, underserved senior citizens.

This Growing Together Mini-Grant initiative was originally intended to fund a brand new and collaborative partnership between Purdue Extension, the Master Gardeners of Allen County, the School of Education at Purdue University Fort Wayne, and The Pantry at Purdue University Fort Wayne, a campus food pantry that helps food-insecure members of both the university, including students, staff, faculty, and the community. This project allowed the Master Gardeners of Allen County to start a donation garden and grow a variety of produce specifically for The Pantry at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Unfortunately, COVID-19 required significant changes to this project. With the campus closing in the spring and students largely not being on campus, The Pantry saw reduced demand and less need for the produce donations.

To continue the mission of the original project of growing and distributing produce to those in need, the project team switched to donating to seniors in the community through In-Home Services. The partnership was started largely through the connections of the lead Master Gardener, Jackie Hoopfer. Many of In-Home Services clients faced several challenges, due to COVID-19. Due to their age and medical conditions, many were restricted from going to the grocery store. Others faced the additional obstacle caused by a lack of transportation. Most recipients were single, elderly ladies and they were incredibly grateful for the food assistance.

One such recipient was Iris – a resident living near the campus. Iris suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and the stress of the COVID-19 virus due to isolation exasperated her symptoms. Iris, who said she did not think she would see farm fresh vegetables that summer, was thrilled to receive the vegetables. After smiling and smelling them, Iris began planning uses for the two larger zucchinis, including giving one to her neighbor who is homebound. She said, “How can I not share my bounty?!” The cucumbers became part of a salad for that night’s dinner and a dish with zucchini, green bell peppers, and rice was planned for the following evening.

“These kind of happy feelings is what I believe the garden brings to people. Just people helping out people in a kind manner – pretty powerful,” Hoopfer said.

The In-Home Services clients were not the only ones who benefited from the garden. From the onset, the Master Gardeners along with Horticulturalist Terri Theisen, provided education to volunteers on how to grow and

During the 2020 growing season in Indiana, 14 counties participated in this project, including: Allen, Boone, Crawford, Daviess, Delaware, Hamilton, Hancock, Lake, Madison, Marion, Porter, Putnam, Spencer and Tippecanoe Counties. In total, 359 volunteers partnered with Purdue Extension staff to coordinate volunteer projects in collaboration with caring agencies and schools seeking to meet the needs of limited-resource individuals and families living in their communities. More than 3,000 volunteer hours were committed to planting, maintaining, harvesting, and supporting the 21 gardens associated with this project. This year’s projects grew, donated, and distributed over 7,184 pounds of produce to 33 organizations that served as distribution and education sites. Based on agency service numbers, the produce was available to an estimated 10,026 clients. In addition to the $12,465 provided to the mini-grant awardees, Extension staff were able to acquire over $31,000 in in-kind donations of labor and resources in support of the projects.

We are expecting to continue this progress, thanks to the awarding of “Growing Together” mini grants to 12 counties for the 2021 growing season, the expansion of existing projects, and the easing of COVID-19 restrictions on potential volunteers.