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Revival of ‘victory gardens’ forges outlet for cultivating hope

Candace Krebs
Ag Journal

When the pandemic struck, program organizers at Colorado State University looked for a way to turn a network of master gardeners into a positive force for change in their local communities.

The project turned out to be more successful, and more expansive, than they ever dreamed possible.

CSU’s Grow and Give project registered 584 participants in 37 counties, including 67 people who had never gardened before. In the end, participating gardeners gave away 46,500 pounds of produce, mostly squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy greens, beans, apples and plums.

“These were small donations that added up and made a big difference,” said Katie Dunker, CSU’s statewide Master Gardener coordinator.

“We did this work on a dime,” she added. “We built this plane while we were flying it and made a pretty significant donation across the state.”

atie Dunker, the Ft. Collins based statewide coordinator for Colorado State University’s Master Gardener program, saw a chance to “dig into something positive” by creating a project that would encourage home gardeners to donate excess produce to local food pantries. Through a new program called Grow and Give, she rallied nearly 600 participants in 37 counties to donate more than 46,000 pounds of produce during the 2020 growing season.

Dunker drew inspiration from the so-called victory garden movement of World War II. During that period of similar economic upheaval, 40 percent of produce Americans consumed was grown in people’s backyards.

She also saw the need for something positive and proactive to focus on, describing home gardening as “a sandbox for adults, a reason to be outside and get dirty and see something grow.”

Both Dunker and her colleague, John Stolzle, a horticulture and plant pathologist and ag agent in Jefferson County, were brimming with enthusiasm and ideas as they discussed the project during a CSU Food Systems webinar.

Dunker said what began as an attempt to mobilize CSU master gardeners has since grown far beyond that. 

“We thought it was as simple as: grow food, or learn to grow food, and we’re going to encourage you to share the harvest,” she said. “What we’ve discovered is that there’s a lot more to this work.”

They began with a simple premise: encourage food donations and identify food distribution locations around the state that accept fresh produce.

“We wanted to engage our master gardener community with the idea that it’s going to be different this year, but there will still be opportunities to make a difference,” Dunker said.

Among the related materials CSU created was a Colorado vegetable guide that puts all the necessary information on Colorado food growing in one location, “an attempt to condense things together,” Stolzle said.

In May, all gardeners were offered a free online vegetable growing course, which normally costs $40. More than 5,000 people signed up, compared to a total of 78 for the same course back in 2019.

Next, the organizers contacted more than 100 hunger-relief providers to find out exactly what days of the week and hours of the day they could accept local produce and put it all together into a user-friendly interactive map. 

“One of the key objectives was to connect people with the food system,” Stolzle said. “Connect people who are growing produce with those who are in need of the produce. It’s this fabric, this network, we are trying to encourage, and we want to make it as easy as possible.”

Since then, ambitions have grown. The two coordinators are now framing their mission as — in Dunker’s words — “how do we connect individuals to their local communities in a way they haven’t been connected before?”

In its first year, the program took them in many unanticipated directions. Two different high country food alliances — Mountain Roots in Gunnison and Roaring Fork — reached out to say they had similar projects ongoing and an interest in partnering.

In La Plata County, in far Southwest Colorado, 70 victory garden kits were distributed to families in need, including 40 Spanish-speaking immigrant families.

CSU Extension also forged a link with Fresh Food Connect, a nonprofit that distributes fresh produce to those in need along the Front Range. CSU is working on a desktop application to compliment Fresh Food Connect’s mobile app, as the two partner to share technology, audiences and resources.

Various agriculture extension specialists have also gotten involved. CSU horticulturalist Mike Bartolo, who directs the Rocky Ford Research Station, appeared in an educational webinar that was very popular with program participants. And Jay Hamm, a CSU professor of soil and crop sciences who created a small irrigation sensor mostly used by golf courses and farms, is now demonstrating the technology to home gardeners in an effort to sell them on the idea of water-wise gardening.

In light of the drought, sustainable water-conscious vegetable gardening is a topic that will likely continue to gain more focus in 2021, Stolzle said.

Another idea is promoting themed gardens, such as a salsa garden.

“Why not plan a garden with donations in mind?” Stolzle said.

Over the past year, the project developed more than 30 recipes and created some new canning materials.

“One challenge is how do we relay that type of information for people receiving the produce? We have the materials. Now how do we get them to the people who need them?” he said.

With obvious enthusiasm, the coordinators tossed around several new possibilities for making the project bigger and better next year.

Of the gardeners who registered to participate in 2020, less than half were master gardeners. Now Dunker is looking into pairing master gardeners with beginning gardeners “so participants will have a touch-point in their local community.”

“One thing that became very apparent to me through this process is that food systems are not this isolated siloed thing,” she said. “It’s connected to so many parts of our lives.

This is community development, this is youth outreach. So many components fit into this.”

“We are connecting with other groups, within and outside of CSU extension,” she added. “We are reaching out to professors, looking for other food justice projects. A lot of these projects function independently, but one of my goals is connecting these together. During the off-season, we are doing what we can to connect the dots.”