Rockford, Illinois – During a year of many unknowns, University of Illinois Extension worked with community partners to grow vegetables for their neighbors. The “Growing Together Illinois” grant provided funds and resources to address food
insecurity and access in Rockford. The garden initiative was funded by Illinois Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP Ed). Between two gardens, over 800 pounds of vegetables were harvested during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
This spring, when gardeners were planning their gardens, it was unsure whether communities should continue their public gardens. Many workers found themselves qualifying for unemployment and needing food assistance as they were sent home during the pandemic. The “Growing Together” project allowed University of Illinois Extension and Extension Master Gardeners with local volunteers to connect their neighbors to fresh, healthy produce.
“There is one thing I know about gardeners – they are resourceful. They will find ways to get their hands dirty despite obstacles that
come their way.” stated Carol Erickson, Extension Educator and project coordinator. Erickson and Extension Master
Gardeners assisted community partners as they built nine new raised beds at Fairgrounds Boys and Girls Club and six additional raised beds on Broadway
across from Crusader Community Health.
Masked volunteers from Rockford Boys and Girls Club assembled the raised garden beds in late April. An anxious Master Gardener gave additional funds to expedite the building of the new garden. By early May, many of the new beds were home to seedlings started by the Club’s youth in their new facility inside the former St. Paul Lutheran School. The garden is framed with eight half-barrel planters that contain blueberries, raspberries, and pollinator plants.
Youth were able to see the results of their hard work from seed to tomato. "The wonderful thing about our teaching garden is that it is a hands-on, mind-on experience where kids can learn together," said Gayle Dixon, unit director.
According to parent Marquita Simms, "my children liked spending time in the garden, getting their hands dirty, watching the plants grow, and bringing home the vegetables." Throughout the growing season, the garden provided 325 pounds of fresh vegetables for the club’s youth and their families at the Fairgrounds.
Six new raised beds were built at the Broadway “Growing Together” garden in June by
volunteers from Rockford YouthBuild. With the additional raised beds, the vacant city lot now houses eighteen beds that yielded almost 500 pounds of tomatoes, greens, potatoes, and other vegetables. Volunteers from Crusader Community Health and Rockford helped plant, water, and harvest throughout the growing season. The fresh produce was delivered twice a week to Rock River Valley Pantry across the street from the garden inside Crusader Community Health.
This is the third year University of Illinois Extension has led this grant effort. The first garden was built at St. Elizabeth Community Center in 2018. Youth from the center planted, watered, and harvested produce that they delivered to St. Elizabeth Food Pantry and for their families. Extension SNAP Ed staff have taught related nutrition lessons to the youth involved.
The “Growing Together Illinois” initiative is funded by Illinois Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP Ed). The project works closely with University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener Program to address hunger on a local level. If you would like more information about the project or would like to be involved in 2021, please contact University of Illinois Extension office at (815) 986-4357 or Carol Erickson at email@example.com.
Carol Erickson is a University of Illinois Extension, SNAP Ed Educator.