In Illinois, some food pantry users are taught to grow own vegetables

Lee Jennings, a township supervisor, thought the well-mowed grass outside his office in Crystal Lake, Ill., could be put to better use.

Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Watering cans sit in a garden at the Waltham Fields Community Farm in Waltham, Mass.

Lee Jennings looked through his office window and over the three acres of well-mowed grass and forest land outside.

There was always something happening out there: boy scout and girl scout meetings, camp outs, cookouts.

He got to thinking, "It's land that is just mowed. Why not get more people involved out here?"

That's when the idea to launch a local startup organization hit him: Make some of the land available to volunteers, let them grow vegetables and donate the produce to those in need.

His startup became the half-acre garden plot behind the Nunda Township supervisor's office in Crystal Lake, Ill., where Jennings works as the township supervisor. Last year, the garden produced nearly 1,000 pounds of fresh vegetables that were donated to local food pantries.

This year a new program has been introduced to the garden to do even more good. Shelbi Ball, a community garden coordinator for the Northern Illinois Food Bank, created Garden Connect, a pilot program that teaches food pantry clients to grow their own vegetables in the Nunda Township garden.

Carol Waggoner, a public health nurse and health educator for the McHenry County Department of Health, said 10 families had signed up for a garden plot.

"Each family gets their own allotment of garden space that they can use to grow veggies and take home with them," she said.

The program aligns with the health department's Healthy People 2020 program, meant to get people in the county to increase their physical activity and eat healthier. She said eating fresh vegetables can provide health benefits such as obesity prevention, and indirect benefits to the Garden Connect program are fresh air and exercise.

In addition to the health benefits, families that participate learn a new skill. Master Gardeners from the University of Illinois Extension volunteer their expertise so families will have all of the information needed to grow a good crop.

"Everything is free to them, including the seeds and the tools to work their part of the garden," Ball said. "We don't want there to be any barriers to getting good food."

The program also includes nutrition education and recipes for different ways to prepare what is harvested.

Ball said that if successful, they hope to expand the pilot program to all 13 counties served by the Northern Illinois Food Bank.

In addition to the Garden Connect participants working the land, Ball said, there are between 20 and 25 volunteers who tend the garden.

"Last year, there were six rows under cultivation. This year we have 14," she said. "We're hoping to double output."

Water for the garden comes from Jennings's office.

"This year, an irrigation system is being installed by a Boy Scout," Jennings said. "Every row will have an individual valve for watering so that each row's water needs can be custom tailored to it."

Brenda Dahlfors, McHenry County Master Gardener coordinator at the University of Illinois Extension, said the gardeners selected which seeds to plant after checking with food pantries to see what is in demand. This year's crops include tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, squash and more.

Teresa Schryver, AmeriCorps VISTA team member of the Northern Illinois Food Bank, said there is an ongoing need for gardens such as this. About 71,500 individuals rely on the food pantries, she said, and people would be amazed at the large amount of candy and snacks that are donated.

"We want to focus on healthy foods," Schryver said. "This garden is an extension of that mission."

Dahlfors credited the garden's success and continued growth to Jennings, who first made the community garden a reality by bringing together an unlikely group of organizations to combine their expertise and resources.

"Lee Jennings was the driving force for this partnership," Dahlfors said. "Now there are lots of people willing to stop in and help."

Jennings is pleased with its success and continued growth and ability to help the community.

"This has taken off well considering that it was a startup last year," he said.

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