Community gardens fight food insecurity close to home

URBANA, Ill. - Illinois is home to some of the most fertile soils in the world. No one should go hungry here. Every year, Illinois Extension staff and Master Gardener volunteers around the state fight food insecurity with fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden.

By working with local partners, we can share the tools, resources, and knowledge communities need to grow nutritious food for themselves and their neighbors. Because food insecurity is not just about hunger. It’s about having access to healthy food options.

Last year, 278 Illinois Extension community gardens grew and donated produce worth $242,000.  

Growing an idea: Southern Illinois community gardens inspire others to put down roots

First planted in 2019, food grown at the Plant A Row, Watch COPE Grow garden in Metropolis is delivered to the COPE Food Pantry for distribution. Last year, they shared 352 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. Local high school students built and installed new raised beds, while community sponsors donated time, supplies, and funding to support the project which is a partnership between Illinois Extension in Alexander, Johnson, Massac, Pulaski, and Union Counties, the pantry, and a local business.

Inspired by their success, the regional health department, Southern 7, approached Extension staff to start a similar garden in nearby Cairo. Over the course of a few months in 2021, volunteers transformed an empty gravel lot into a thriving garden with 681 pounds of fresh produce donations going to the Daystar Community Program food pantry and soup kitchen.

Growing Together Illinois grant launches community garden

In Marion, 21 varieties of vegetables and 358 pounds of produce from The Cultivating Care Donation Garden were donated to The Salvation Army of Southern Illinois food pantry.

Made possible by a Growing Together Illinois grant, Extension staff in Franklin, Perry, Randolph, and Williamson Counties worked with community partners to launch the garden in 2021. The project is a collaboration between Extension staff and volunteers. Members of the agriculture and natural resources teams build and sustain the garden, Master Gardeners and 4-H members provide garden upkeep, and SNAP-Ed staff deliver the harvest.

“We’re thrilled to see this garden become a reality. Having fresh, seasonal produce for our clients’ overall health is a great benefit," says Cami Horn, Salvation Army of Southern Illinois.

To cap off a successful growing season, University leaders President Timothy Killeen and Chancellor Robert Jones visited the garden while touring Southern Illinois in the fall.

 

Unity is the heart of community gardens

At the center of every community garden is a group of people committed to the idea that growing and learning together is how everyone succeeds. By partnering with area agencies and businesses, Extension increases the positive impact of its programs.

At The Kitchen Table: The Kitchen Table pay-what-you-can café provides meals to anyone regardless of their ability to pay in the Rochelle area. Through the combined efforts of the Ogle County Master Gardeners and SNAP-Ed in Illinois Extension Boone, DeKalb, and Ogle Counties, the new on-site community garden grew 358 pounds of produce for the café and a local food pantry. The garden was a labor of love with input from many. It was established with a grant from Growing Together Illinois. Transplants were started from seed by Kishwaukee College’s horticulture department. Garden beds were designed by Eagle Scout David Kennedy. Master Gardeners and local 4-H clubs assisted with upkeep, watering, and harvesting.

Giving Garden gives back: The Giving Garden in Livingston County lives up to its name. In 2021, Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties Illinois Extension horticulture and local foods small farms staff provided 53 community members, families, churches, and youth organizations with free vegetable and flower gardening kits with the promise that they donate at least half of the produce or flowers. Participants met their pledges by donating vegetables and floral arrangements to local food pantries, nursing homes and hospitals, social service agencies, schools, senior centers, and individuals or families in need.

Prescription Produce: In Central Illinois, Crossing Healthcare has provided qualifying Decatur-area patients with access to fresh food through a Prescription Produce program for years. By partnering with Crossing, Illinois Extension Master Gardeners and SNAP-Ed staff in DeWitt, Macon, and Piatt Counties worked to expand the program to enroll 51 new food insecure patients with funding from the Growing Together Illinois project.

 

Locally grown produce is “a significant blessing” for food pantries

Cans and boxes line food pantry shelves but high costs and storage limitations mean fresh fruits and vegetables are often missing. Food donations from gardens maintained by Extension staff and volunteers allow those who visit pantries to leave with freshly picked tomatoes, lettuce, cantaloupe, strawberries, and other seasonal produce.

In DuPage, Kane, and Kendall Counties, Master Gardeners Connie Hatter and Hillard Bryant grew more than 59,000 pounds of produce to the Kendal County Community Food Pantry since they started volunteering at the Plano Community Garden. In 2021, they donated 12,661 pounds including tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and squash.

“Making fresh produce available here is a significant blessing to small and large families alike. There are thousands of children exposed to healthy, fresh produce each year who would have otherwise very likely been offered much less healthy items," says Greg Witek, KCCFP Chairman. 

  • The Master Gardeners of Vermilion County grow vegetables at both community gardens as well as in their home gardens. Together they donated 4,210 pounds of fresh produce to area food pantries and shelters.
  • In Western Illinois Master Gardeners with Extension in Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair Counties worked to expand existing gardens and create new community gardens with funding from Growing Together Illinois. They donated over 13,000 pounds of produce in 2021. The local SNAP-Ed team also worked with community coalitions to revitalize three community gardens.
  • 10.7% of the population in Iroquois County is food insecure. With this in mind, Iroquois Memorial Hospital partnered with the Iroquois County Extension Master Gardeners to start a vegetable garden in the hospital courtyard. In its first year, the garden produced more than 200 pounds of vegetables for the community, and United Way provided a $2,000 grant to expand the project.

Connect with a local Master Gardener program or download our guide at go.illinois.edu/DonateProduceGuide to learn more about donating garden produce.

Growing a new generation of gardeners

To help address local food insecurity, the Boone County Master Gardeners used the Buchanan Street Community Gardens in Belvidere as a learning space for the Juntos 4-H Latino Club. Twice a month from May to October, Master Gardeners taught 4-H members about gardening. Youth helped water the garden and together they grew 625 pounds of produce for a local food pantry and a low-income housing apartment building.

The 4-H members enjoyed working in the garden – if you ask them, digging up sweet potatoes was the best part – and they plan to do the project again.

Learn more about how Illinois Extension’s horticulture and food programs can help your community grow at extension.illinois.edu/food and extension.illinois.edu/mg.

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.